By Or Rabinowitz and Norman Dombey

2010 has seen an increase in the level of international attention dedicated to Israel's nuclear status and the country's opaque nuclear policy.

The recent surge of interest was fuelled primarily by the concluding document produced by the 189 delegations that attended the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference held last May in New York. The document reaffirmed the 'importance of Israel's accession to the Treaty and the placement of its nuclear facilities under comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards'. The document thus assumed that Israel could only join the NPT as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State, a status which entails putting its facilities under international inspections. However, a fresh look at Israel's documented nuclear history shows that Israel may be able to join the NPT as a Nuclear Weapon State. If that is the case, inspection by the IAEA would be voluntary as it is for Britain and France, for example.

The NPT separates states into Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) and Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS) who abide by different obligations if they join the NPT. According to Article IX of the treaty, a state qualifies as a NWS by meeting an explicit condition: the state must have manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive device before January 1, 1967. Thus the five permanent members of the UN Security Council - Britain, the United States (US), Russia, France and China - qualify to be NWS and it seems that all other states are NNWS.

However, as Egyptian diplomat Mohamed Shaker noted back in 1980, this formulation created a loop-hole. If a state met the NWS criterion by secretly manufacturing and exploding a nuclear weapon prior to January 1, 1967, it could later reveal the evidence and join the treaty as a NWS.

Cold Testing

It is likely that Israel conducted some form of a nuclear test on November 2, 1966. This suggestion comes from a passage in the biography of Munya Mardor, who headed RFAEL, Israel's armament agency in charge of nuclear development. Mardor wrote the following passage in his diary: 'On November 2, 1966, a test with a special significance was conducted. It meant an end of an era of development, and a step that brought one of our primary weapons systems to its final phases of development and production in RAFAEL. The test was completely successful, for we received an unequivocal experimental proof of the adequacy of the system that was developed at RAFAEL, we have waited for that result for many years.'

Mardor's ambiguous entry, which was spotted only in 1990 as a possible reference to a nuclear test, evolved into what Michael Karpin in The Bomb in the Basement calls 'a fixture of discourse' in the literature about Israel's nuclear past and is considered by most researchers to be a description of some form of an Israeli nuclear test. According to Karpin, a 'nuclear device was completed and tested by a procedure known in the professional jargon as 'cold testing'...the cold test of 'critical mass proceeding'...was carried out by RAFAEL in November 1966.' To understand what this probably means let us assume that Israel had a supply of highly enriched uranium (HEU). A cold test of an HEU weapon could then start with the test of an identical device containing the neutron initiator, the fissile core in whatever configuration the designers suggest, and chemical explosives to implode the core, but with a core made out of natural or low enriched uranium. The neutron yield would then be measured in the test. By repeating the test several times, each time with an increased level of enrichment of the uranium in the core, it should be possible to extrapolate the results to predict the behaviour for HEU in that configuration. An alternative design with plutonium as well as HEU in the core could be cold tested in the same way, varying the level of enrichment of the uranium but fixing the plutonium content.

It is normally assumed that Israel's nuclear weapons use plutonium produced from spent fuel from its Dimona reactor, rather than HEU. Scientists Victor Gilinsky and Roger J. Mattson, however, have recently published an account of how more than four hundred kilograms of HEU from a Pennsylvania enrichment plant went missing during the 1960s and are thought to have ended up in Israel. If HEU were available to Israel, cold tests would have validated the design and allowed Israel to build a stockpile of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, were they the nuclear weapon explosions envisaged by Article IX of the NPT?

Early drafts of the NPT intended to define the term 'nuclear weapon' but this was not pursued and the eventual treaty contained no definition. So what did the sponsors of the final treaty mean by the term 'nuclear weapon' in1967? For the US this is clear: an atomic weapon is defined by the 1954 US Atomic Energy Act as 'any device utilizing atomic energy, exclusive of the means for transporting or propelling the device (where such means is a separable and divisible part of the device), the principle purpose of which is for use as, or development of, a weapon, a weapon prototype, or a weapon test device. 'The act also defines 'atomic energy' as meaning 'nuclear energy', so 'atomic weapon' is synonymous with 'nuclear weapon'. Note that while the yield of the device is irrelevant, the purpose of the device is crucial and weapon prototypes and weapon test devices are included in the term 'nuclear weapon'. Using this definition, it is likely that Israel conducted a series of nuclear weapon test explosions concluding the series on November 2, 1966, and therefore manufactured and exploded a nuclear weapon before January 1, 1967. The USSR did not provide an alternative definition, nor was one suggested by other members of the ENDC, nor did any NPT signatory define the term when they signed. This interpretation of 'nuclear weapon' is strengthened by the inclusion by the US of its zero yield tests - e.g. the joint Anglo-American test of plutonium dispersal of May 31, 1963 - in its official list of nuclear weapon tests.


If Israel did conduct a test explosion of a nuclear weapon - as defined by the 1954 Act - in November 1966, then it is entitled to present the evidence for this to the US, which is a treaty depositary state, and say that it wished to sign the NPT in Washington as a nuclear weapon state. There are no indications that Israel is willing to lift the veil of opacity off its nuclear status and join the NPT any time soon, but joining as a NWS could become attractive if the policy of opacity comes under strain. The obligations of a NWS under the NPT are not onerous: they are limited to the obligations not to transfer nuclear weapons to others or help NNWS to acquire nuclear weapons; the obligation to cooperate with other states in developing civil nuclear technology; and the obligation to negotiate with other state parties towards the goal of general and complete disarmament including nuclear disarmament. Were Israel to join as a NWS, it would benefit by having a place in international gatherings such as the NPT Review Conference, where at present it has no voice. It could also help relations with the US where the Glenn amendment requires the president to impose sanctions on any non-nuclear-weapon state that he or she determines is a nonnuclear-weapon state that has detonated a nuclear explosive device. Thus, NWS status for Israel would prevent Glenn amendment sanctions for conducting nuclear tests in the future, in response to an Iranian test for example.

Israel's main motivations in maintaining its nuclear ambiguity-cum opacity were to avoid American and Western criticism, to refrain from provoking the Arab states into withdrawing from the NPT and to avoid the escalation of a regional nuclear arms race. A change in this situation might lead to a change of policy. An ultra nationalistic Israeli government that is experiencing a deepening rift with Washington and the west over the conflict with the Palestinians and facing an Iranian nuclear test or provocation might consider such a move for its symbolic confrontational value.

From a more optimistic point of view, if progress is ever made by a moderate Israeli government towards reaching a 'Grand Bargain' peace pact with the Arab world in which in return for a Palestinian state the Arab states - as well as the west - are willing to officially recognise Israel and its nuclear status, then Israel could opt for this path, taking its bomb from its basement to a Kosher international kitchen. After all, as researcher Avner Cohen states, the Arab world has been living with the full knowledge of an undeclared Israeli bomb for more than forty years now. Assuming Washington and the international community would support such a bargain, Israel could enjoy the privilege of not being under any NPT legal obligation to put its nuclear facilities under international inspection.

(Or Rabinowitz is a PHD Student at the War Studies Department, King's College London, and Norman Dombey is Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics, University of Sussex.)


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