Israel's first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was "nearly obsessed" with obtaining nuclear weapons to prevent the Holocaust from recurring. He stated, "What Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller, the three of them are Jews, made for the United States, could also be done by scientists in Israel, for their own people". Ben-Gurion decided to recruit Jewish scientists from abroad even before the end of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War that established Israel's independence. He and others, such as head of the Weizmann Institute of Science and defense ministry scientist Ernst David Bergmann, believed and hoped that Jewish scientists such as Oppenheimer and Teller would help Israel.
In 1949 a unit of the Israel Defense Forces Science Corps, known by the Hebrew acronym HEMED GIMMEL, began a two-year geological survey of the Negev. While a preliminary study was initially prompted by rumors of petroleum fields, one objective of the longer two year survey was to find sources of uranium; some small recoverable amounts were found in phosphate deposits. That year Hemed Gimmel funded six Israeli physics graduate students to study overseas, including one to go to the University of Chicago and study under Enrico Fermi, who had overseen the world's first artificial and self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. In early 1952 Hemed Gimmel was moved from the IDF to the Ministry of Defense and was reorganized as the Division of Research and Infrastructure (EMET). That June, Bergmann was appointed by Ben-Gurion to be the first chairman of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC).
Hemed Gimmel was renamed Machon 4 during the transfer, and was used by Bergmann as the "chief laboratory" of the IAEC; by 1953, Machon 4, working with the Department of Isotope Research at the Weizmann Institute, developed the capability to extract uranium from the phosphate in the Negev and a new technique to produce indigenous heavy water. The techniques were two years more advanced than American efforts. Bergmann, who was interested in increasing nuclear cooperation with the French, sold both patents to the Commissariat à l'énergie atomique (CEA) for 60 million francs. Although they were never commercialized, it was a consequential step for future French-Israeli cooperation. In addition, Israeli scientists probably helped construct the G-1 plutonium production reactor and UP-1 reprocessing plant at Marcoule. France and Israel had close relations in many areas. France was principal arms supplier for the young Jewish state, and as instability spread through French colonies in North Africa, Israel provided valuable intelligence obtained from contacts with Sephardi Jews in those countries. At the same time Israeli scientists were also observing France's own nuclear program, and were the only foreign scientists allowed to roam "at will" at the nuclear facility at Marcoule. In addition to the relationships between Israeli and French Jewish and non-Jewish researchers, the French believed that cooperation with Israel could give them access to international Jewish nuclear scientists.
After U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower announced the Atoms for Peace initiative, Israel became the second country to sign on (following Turkey), and signed a peaceful nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States on July 12, 1955. This culminated in a public signing ceremony on March 20, 1957, to construct a "small swimming-pool research reactor in Nachal Soreq", which would be used to shroud the construction of a much larger facility with the French at Dimona.
In 1986 Francis Perrin, French high-commissioner for atomic energy from 1951 to 1970 stated publicly that in 1949 Israeli scientists were invited to the Saclay Nuclear Research Centre, this cooperation leading to a joint effort including sharing of knowledge between French and Israeli scientists especially those with knowledge from the Manhattan Project. According to Lieutenant Colonel Warner D. Farr in a report to the USAF Counterproliferation Center while France was previously a leader in nuclear research "Israel and France were at a similar level of expertise after the war, and Israeli scientists could make significant contributions to the French effort. Progress in nuclear science and technology in France and Israel remained closely linked throughout the early fifties." Furthermore, according to Farr, "There were several Israeli observers at the French nuclear tests and the Israelis had 'unrestricted access to French nuclear test explosion data.'"
The French justified their decision to provide Israel a nuclear reactor by claiming it was not without precedent. In September 1955 Canada publicly announced that it would help the Indian government build a heavy-water research reactor, the CIRUS reactor, for "peaceful purposes". When Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, France proposed Israel attack Egypt and invade the Sinai as a pretext for France and Britain to invade Egypt posing as "peacekeepers" with the true intent of seizing the Suez Canal (see Suez Crisis). In exchange, France would provide the nuclear reactor as the basis for the Israeli nuclear weapons program. Shimon Peres, sensing the opportunity on the nuclear reactor, accepted. On September 17, 1956, Peres and Bergmann reached a tentative agreement in Paris for the CEA to sell Israel a small research reactor. This was reaffirmed by Peres at the Protocol of Sèvres conference in late October for the sale of a reactor to be built near Dimona and for a supply of uranium fuel.
Israel benefited from an unusually pro-Israel French government during this time. After the Suez Crisis led to the threat of Soviet intervention and the British and French were being forced to withdraw under pressure from the U.S., Ben-Gurion sent Peres and Golda Meir to France. During their discussions the groundwork was laid for France to build a larger nuclear reactor and chemical reprocessing plant, and Prime Minister Guy Mollet, ashamed at having abandoned his commitment to fellow socialists in Israel, supposedly told an aide, "I owe the bomb to them," while General Paul Ely, Chief of the Defence Staff, said that "We must give them this to guarantee their security, it is vital." Mollet's successor Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury stated "I gave you [Israelis] the bomb in order to prevent another Holocaust from befalling the Jewish people and so that Israel could face its enemies in the Middle East."
The French–Israeli relationship was finalized on October 3, 1957, in two agreements whose contents remain secret: One political that declared the project to be for peaceful purposes and specified other legal obligations, and one technical that described a 24 megawatt EL-102 reactor. The one to actually be built was to be two to three times as large and be able to produce 22 kilograms of plutonium a year. When the reactor arrived in Israel, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion declared that its purpose was to provide a pumping station to desalinate a billion gallons of seawater annually and turn the desert into an "agricultural paradise". Six of seven members of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission promptly resigned, protesting that the reactor was the precursor to "political adventurism which will unite the world against us".
Before construction began it was determined that the scope of the project would be too large for the EMET and IAEC team, so Shimon Peres recruited Colonel
Manes Pratt, then Israeli military attaché in Burma, to be the project leader. Building began in late 1957 or early 1958, bringing hundreds of French engineers and technicians to the Beersheba and Dimona area. In addition, thousands of newly immigrated Sephardi Jews were recruited to do digging; to circumvent strict labor laws, they were hired in increments of 59 days, separated by one day off.
Creation of LEKEM
By the late 1950s Shimon Peres had established and appointed a new intelligence service assigned to search the globe and clandestinely secure technology, materials and equipment needed for the program, by any means necessary. The new service would eventually be named LEKEM (pronounced LAKAM, the Hebrew acronym for ‘Science liaison Bureau’). Peres appointed IDF Internal Security Chief, Benjamin Blumberg, to the task. As head of the LEKEM, Blumberg would rise to become a key figure in Israel’s intelligence community, coordinating agents worldwide and securing the crucial components for the program.
Rift between Israel and France
When Charles de Gaulle became French President in late 1958 he wanted to end French–Israeli nuclear cooperation, and said that he would not supply Israel with uranium unless the plant was opened to international inspectors, declared peaceful, and no plutonium was reprocessed. Through an extended series of negotiations, Shimon Peres finally reached a compromise with Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville over two years later, in which French companies would be able to continue to fulfill their contract obligations and Israel would declare the project peaceful. Due to this, French assistance did not end until 1966. However the supply of uranium fuel was stopped earlier, in 1963. Despite this, a French uranium company based in Gabon may have sold Israel uranium in 1965. The US government launched an investigation but was unable to determine if such a sale had taken place.
Top secret British documents obtained by BBC Newsnight show that Britain made hundreds of secret shipments of restricted materials to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s. These included specialist chemicals for reprocessing and samples of fissile material—uranium-235 in 1959, and plutonium in 1966, as well as highly enriched lithium-6, which is used to boost fission bombs and fuel hydrogen bombs. The investigation also showed that Britain shipped 20 tons of heavy water directly to Israel in 1959 and 1960 to start up the Dimona reactor. The transaction was made through a Norwegian front company called
Noratom, which took a 2% commission on the transaction. Britain was challenged about the heavy water deal at the International Atomic Energy Agency after it was exposed on Newsnight in 2005. British Foreign Minister Kim Howells claimed this was a sale to Norway. But a former British intelligence officer who investigated the deal at the time confirmed that this was really a sale to Israel and the Noratom contract was just a charade. The Foreign Office finally admitted in March 2006 that Britain knew the destination was Israel all along. Israel admits running the Dimona reactor with Norway's heavy water since 1963. French engineers who helped build Dimona say the Israelis were expert operators, so only a relatively small portion of the water was lost during the years since the reactor was first put into operation.
In 1961, the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion informed the Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker that a pilot plutonium-separation plant would be built at Dimona. British intelligence concluded from this and other information that this "can only mean that Israel intends to produce nuclear weapons". The nuclear reactor at Dimona went critical in 1962. After Israel's rupture with France, the Israeli government reportedly reached out to Argentina. The Argentine government agreed to sell Israel yellowcake (uranium oxide). Between 1963 and 1966, about 90 tons of yellowcake were allegedly shipped to Israel from Argentina in secret. By 1965 the Israeli reprocessing plant was completed and ready to convert the reactor's fuel rods into weapons grade plutonium.
The exact costs for the construction of the Israeli nuclear program are unknown, though Peres later said that the reactor cost $80 million in 1960, half of which was raised by foreign Jewish donors, including many American Jews. Some of these donors were given a tour of the Dimona complex in 1968.
Weapons production 1966–present
Israel is believed to have begun full-scale production of nuclear weapons following the 1967 Six-Day War, although it had built its first operational nuclear weapon by December 1966. A CIA report from early 1967 stated that Israel had the materials to construct a bomb in six to eight weeks and some authors suggest that Israel had two crude bombs ready for use during the war. According to US journalist Seymour Hersh, everything was ready for production at this time save an official order to do so. Israel crossed the nuclear threshold on the eve of the Six-Day War in May 1967. "[Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol, according to a number of Israeli sources, secretly ordered the Dimona [nuclear reactor] scientists to assemble two crude nuclear devices. He placed them under the command of Brigadier General Yitzhak Yaakov, the chief of research and development in Israel's Defense Ministry. One official said the operation was referred to as Spider because the nuclear devices were inelegant contraptions with appendages sticking out. The crude atomic bombs were readied for deployment on trucks that could race to the Egyptian border for detonation in the event Arab forces overwhelmed Israeli defenses."
Another CIA report from 1968 states that "Israel might undertake a nuclear weapons program in the next several years." Moshe Dayan, then Defense Minister, believed that nuclear weapons were cheaper and more practical than indefinitely growing Israel's conventional forces. He convinced the Labor Party's economic boss Pinchas Sapir of the value of commencing the program by giving him a tour of the Dimona site in early 1968, and soon after Dayan decided that he had the authority to order the start of full production of four to five nuclear warheads a year. Hersh stated that it is widely believed that the words "Never Again" were welded, in English and Hebrew, onto the first warhead.
In order to produce plutonium the Israelis needed a large supply of uranium ore. In 1968, the Mossad purchased 200 tons from Union Minière du Haut Katanga, a Belgian mining company, on the pretense of buying it for an Italian chemical company in Milan. Once the uranium was shipped from Antwerp it was transferred to an Israeli freighter at sea and brought to Israel. The orchestrated disappearance of the uranium, named Operation Plumbat, became the subject of the 1978 book The Plumbat Affair.
Estimates as to how many warheads Israel has built since the late 1960s have varied, mainly based on the amount of fissile material that could have been produced and on the revelations of Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu.
By 1969, U.S. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird believed that Israel might have a nuclear weapon that year. Later that year, U.S. President Richard Nixon in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir pressed Israel to "make no visible introduction of nuclear weapons or undertake a nuclear test program", so maintaining a policy of nuclear ambiguity. Before the Yom Kippur War, Peres nonetheless wanted Israel to publicly demonstrate its nuclear capability to discourage an Arab attack, and fear of Israeli nuclear weapons may have discouraged Arab military strategy during the war from being as aggressive as it could have been.
The CIA believed that Israel's first bombs may have been made with highly enriched uranium stolen in the mid-1960s from the U.S. Navy nuclear fuel plant operated by the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corporation, where sloppy material accounting would have masked the theft.
By 1974, the believed Israel had stockpiled a small number of fission weapons, and by 1979 were perhaps in a position to test a more advanced small tactical nuclear weapon or thermonuclear weapon trigger design.
The CIA believed that the number of Israeli nuclear weapons stayed from 10 to 20 from 1974 until the early 1980s. Vanunu's information in October 1986 said that based on a reactor operating at 150 megawatts and a production of 40 kg of plutonium per year, Israel had 100 to 200 nuclear devices. Vanunu revealed that between 1980 and 1986 Israel attained the ability to build thermonuclear weapons. By the mid 2000s estimates of Israel's arsenal ranged from 75 to 400 nuclear warheads.
Several reports have surfaced claiming that Israel has some uranium enrichment capability at Dimona. Vanunu asserted that gas centrifuges were operating in Machon 8, and that a laser enrichment plant was being operated in Machon 9 (Israel holds a 1973 patent on laser isotope separation). According to Vanunu, the production-scale plant has been operating since 1979–80. If highly enriched uranium is being produced in substantial quantities, then Israel's nuclear arsenal could be much larger than estimated solely from plutonium production.
In 1991 alone, as the Soviet Union dissolved, nearly 20 top Jewish Soviet scientists reportedly emigrated to Israel, some of whom had been involved in operating nuclear power plants and planning for the next generation of Soviet reactors. In September 1992, German intelligence was quoted in the press as estimating that 40 top Jewish Soviet nuclear scientists had emigrated to Israel since 1989.
In a 2010 interview, Uzi Eilam, former head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, told the Israeli daily Maariv that the nuclear reactor in Dimona had been through extensive improvements and renovations and is now functioning as new, with no safety problems or hazard to the surrounding environment or the region.