Israel’s nuclear weapons have been called “the world’s worst kept secret”. It is widely accepted that the country has nuclear weapons, but Israeli authorities have never officially acknowledged this. The country has never, as far as the outside world knows, test-fired any nuclear weapon, but Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons was revealed in 1986. Israel probably has around 90 nuclear weapons in its nuclear arsenal.
Israel is not a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Israel is considered a de-facto nuclear weapon state because it developed its nuclear weapons after the NPT was negotiated in 1968. Israel has not joined the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program may not be so secret at this point and there are several occasions when the country’s nuclear weapons have come close to being “introduced”. However, representatives of Israel have never confirmed that the country has nuclear weapons, but neither have they denied it. Israel’s policy is that they do not want to be the country that “introduces” nuclear weapons into the Middle East. Read more in Nuclear Notebook: Israeli Nuclear Weapons 2022 by researchers Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda.
The Israeli nuclear weapons program has been developed since the mid-1950s with help from France. Israel has never conducted a nuclear test, but there are suspicions that it may have cooperated with South Africa with a test in the Indian Ocean in 1979.
The nuclear weapons program is revealed
Mordechai Vanunu has made himself known to the outside world as the one who exposed Israel’s nuclear weapons program. He was a former nuclear engineer in Israel, but was kidnapped and imprisoned after exposing the Israeli nuclear weapons program to the British media in 1986. Vanunu spent 18 years in Israeli prison, of which over eleven years in solitary confinement. In 2004, he was released, but was subject to major restrictions on freedom of movement and expression. Since then, he has been arrested on several occasions and served shorter sentences, most recently in July 2007 when he was sentenced to six months in prison for breaching his terms. Mordechai Vanunu has come to be regarded and hailed by many as a hero of the truth but perceived by others as a traitor and madman.
Israeli officials have on a few occasions disavowed the Israeli nuclear weapons program. In December 2006, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made a statement in a German television interview where he talked about “nuclear weapon states such as France, America, Russia and Israel”. Likewise, the Deputy Director of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Ariel Levite, made a statement at a conference in January 2007, where he grouped Israel with the other nuclear weapons states India and Pakistan. Both Olmert and Levite later denied saying that Israel is a nuclear state.
Israel’s nuclear arsenal most likely consists of land- and sea-based missiles and nuclear-armed aircraft and submarines. Although there is great uncertainty, scientists believe that it is possible to arm some Israeli missiles with nuclear weapons.
It is impossible to determine the exact size of the Israeli nuclear arsenal, but attempts have been made. Researchers at the Federation of American Scientists estimate that Israel’s nuclear arsenal consists of about 90 nuclear warheads. Other estimates vary from around 75 up to 400 nuclear warheads. At the time of the 1986 disclosure, the country was said to have between 24 and 36 nuclear weapons.
The role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy
It can be said that Israel’s nuclear weapons doctrine is based precisely on the uncertainty surrounding the country’s nuclear weapons – if they exist, where they are, how many there are, and if Israel can imagine using them.
There are two nuclear research centers in Israel, where the country has facilities to reprocess weapons-grade plutonium from nuclear fuel waste. Some sources also believe that the country has enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Sources and other information
Nuclear Notebook: Chinese Nuclear Weapons 2021, Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda