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Overview Last updated: May, 2014

Situated in a high conflict region, Israel possesses advanced conventional military capabilities, and has for decades maintained a policy of opacity (in Hebrew, amimut) regarding its WMD programs. While experts generally agree that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, no such current open source consensus exists on the status of Israel's offensive chemical or biological weapons programs. Israel also possesses a sizeable arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missiles, and is working towards a multi-layered and comprehensive missile defense capability.

Israel is not a party to any of the major treaties governing WMD nonproliferation, including the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC). It has signed, but not ratified, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). However, Israel is considered a "unilateral adherent" to the MTCR and has recently adopted national export control regulations on chemical and biological materials consistent with Australia Group standards.

Nuclear

Israel is widely understood to possess a sizeable nuclear arsenal, but maintains a policy of nuclear opacity. David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, clandestinely established the nuclear weapons program in the mid to late 1950s with French assistance, to meet what Israel viewed as an existential threat from its Arab neighbors. [1] The program is centered at the Negev Nuclear Research Center (Hebrew acronym, KAMAG) outside the town of Dimona, where a French-supplied plutonium production reactor went critical in the early 1960s. [2] Israel reportedly assembled its first rudimentary nuclear devices in late May 1967 in the run-up to the Six-Day War. [3] Based on some rough estimates of the plutonium production capacity of the Dimona reactor, Israel is believed to have manufactured around 840 kg of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for an estimated arsenal of 100 to 200 nuclear warheads. [4]

Officially, Israel has acknowledged nothing factual about its nuclear weapons capabilities and has merely declared that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East; in parallel, Israel remains a non-signatory to the NPT. While Israel has supported the vision of a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, Israel has been reluctant to negotiate establishing such a zone, asserting that comprehensive peace in the region is a precondition to negotiating a Middle East Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction-Free Zone. [5]

Biological

The Israeli Institute for Biological Research (IIBR), located in the town of Ness Ziona near Tel Aviv, hosts the bulk of Israeli research related to biological weapons. While Israel does not publically comment on its biological weapons capabilities or intentions, IIBR scientists openly publish research on biological weapons agents that is presumably defense-related. [6] Observers have identified historical evidence that could be consistent with either interest in or even the existence of an offensive biological weapons capability, but official U.S. Government assessments offer conflicting interpretations of the status of Israel's biological warfare program. [7] Numerous factors, most notably geographic proximity to Israel's most likely adversaries, limit the potential utility of biological weapons to Israel's armed forces. Nevertheless, because Israel possesses a sophisticated bioscience knowledge base that includes experience in select agent research, including Anthrax, Israel would likely face fewer obstacles than many other countries if it were to initiate an offensive biological weapons program. [8]

In 2004, Israel adopted export controls on biological materials consistent with Australia Group standards. [9] In 2004 and 2010, Israel staged nationwide bioterrorism response drills, including the largest such simulation ever conducted. [10] These events convey defensive concern over the bioterrorism threat.

Chemical

Israel has conducted significant research on the offensive and defensive aspects of chemical weapons at the Israeli Center for Biological Research (IIBR). [11] In 1955, Prime Minister Ben Gurion initiated a "crash" chemical weapons production program intended to provide Israel with an unconventional capability while it worked to acquire nuclear weapons. [12] According to Avner Cohen, "a near-consensus exists among experts--based on anecdotal evidence and intelligence leaks-that Israel developed, produced, stockpiled and perhaps even deployed chemical weapons at some point in its history." [13] Available evidence suggests that Israel does not currently have an offensive chemical weapons program or a chemical weapons arsenal. However, Jane's concludes that, given its sophisticated chemical industry, Israel could develop an offensive chemical weapons program within several months. [14] Israel has signed but not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In response to Syria's decision to dismantle its CW in 2013, Israel has been reluctant to make a gesture of its own. [15]

During the 1991 Iraq War, Israel took the unprecedented step of equipping its entire civilian population with gas masks. [16] In 2004, Israel adopted export controls on chemical agents and materials consistent with the Australia Group's standards, conveying serious concern over the threat of chemical weapons and terrorism. [17]

Missile

Since the early 1960s, Israel has developed the region's most advanced missile manufacturing base, and now deploys the region's most advanced ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile defense systems. [18] Israel's early missile program developments benefited from French and later South African collaboration. [19] Israel also possesses a civil national space program that has previously shared technology with its military missile program. The wide variety of aerial threats posed by numerous adversaries, both state and non-state, has motivated Israel to develop a layered and multi-faceted approach to both offensive and defensive missile technology acquisition.

The Israeli Military likely deployed the short-range Jericho-1 in 1973, followed by the more sophisticated medium-range Jericho-2 in the 1990s. [20] While Israel apparently tested the intermediate-range Jericho-3 in 2008, reportedly displaying a three-stage missile with MIRV (multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles) capabilities, the Jericho-3's production and deployment status remains unknown. [21] Israel plans to expand its naval fleet to include six Dolphin-class diesel-electric submarines, all of which were imported from Germany, and which may be capable of launching nuclear-armed missiles. [22] While Israel is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), it abides by its guidelines. [23] Two of four planned components of Israel's multi-layered missile defense system have also entered service. [24] These deployments, and continued acquisitions of increasingly advanced missile capabilities, are consistent with Israel's overall security strategy of maintaining a "qualitative military edge" over its likely adversaries. [25]

In April, 2014 Israel launched Ofek 10 into space, one of seven satellites currently in orbit and the tenth overall launched. The surveillance satellite is capable of capturing high-resolution imagery in all weather conditions, at all hours of the day. [26] Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon described the satellite as "meant to improve Israel's intelligence capabilities and allow the defense establishment to better deal with threats both close and far." [27]

Sources:
[1] Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 54; Michael Bar-Zohar, Shimon Peres: The Biography (New York: Random House, 2007), p. 213-215.
[2] "Memorandum from the Department of State's Executive Secretary (Read) to the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)," 11 February 1964, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, Vol. XVIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1964-67, Document 12, http://history.state.gov.
[3] Avner Cohen, "Crossing the Threshold: The Untold Nuclear Dimension of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and Its Contemporary Lessons,"Arms Control Today 37 (June 2007), www.armscontrol.org; Avner Cohen, "Nuclear Arms in Crisis under Secrecy: Israel and the 1967 and 1973 Wars," in Planning the Unthinkable: How Powers Will Use Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons, eds. Peter Lavoy et al., (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 112-113; William E. Burrows & Robert Windrem, Critical Mass: The Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 280.
[4] The latest estimate of Israel's plutonium stockpile draws from the International Panel on Fissile Material's estimate as of Jan. 2013, http://fissilematerials.org; "Global Fissile Material Report 2011: Nuclear Weapon and Fissile Material Stockpiles and Production," International Panel on Fissile Materials, 2011, http://fissilematerials.org; "Insight: Inside Dimona, Israel's Nuclear Bomb Factory," The Sunday Times (London), 5 October 1986, www.lexisnexis.com; Frank Barnaby, The Invisible Bomb: The Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1989), p. 25; David Albright, Frans Berkhout, and William Walker, Plutonium and Highly Enriched Uranium 1996: World Inventories, Capabilities, and Policies, (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997) 261-262; Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second Edition (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 262.
[5] "Israel Says Won't Attend WMD-Free Middle East Meeting," Global Security Newswire, 20 September 2012, www.nti.org; Elaine M. Grossman, "U.S., Russia Clash over Mideast WMD Talks Delay," Global Security Newswire; "Mideast Nuclear Talks Called Off," Associated Press, 12 November 2012; 14 November 2012, www.nti.org; Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats, Second Edition (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 267.
[6] Jeanne Guillemin, Biological Weapons (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 151.
[7] For example, Jonathan Tucker writes, "According to journalist Seymour Hersh, in 1960 the CIA tracked Israeli scientists to a French chemical and biological weapons testing site in the Algerian desert and concluded that the Israelis were 'looking at CBW as a stopgap until they got the bomb.'" Jonathan B. Tucker, "Motivations For and Against Proliferation: The Case of the Middle East," in Biological Warfare: Modern Offense and Defense, ed. Raymond A. Zilinskas (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000) p. 40. On historical evidence of a possible Israeli offensive biological weapons program, see pp. 34-37 in: Magnus Normark, Anders Lindblad, Anders Norqvist, Björn Sandström, and Louise Waldenström, "Israel and WMD: Incentives and Capabilities," FOI-Swedish Defence Research Agency, December 2005, www.foi.se.
[8] A 2005 report published by the FOI-Swedish Defence Research Agency concluded that: "Israel does not stockpile or produce BW in large-scale today. However, we assess that Israel has a breakout capability for biological weapons..." Magnus Normark, Anders Lindblad, Anders Norqvist, Björn Sandström, and Louise Waldenström, "Israel and WMD: Incentives and Capabilities," FOI-Swedish Defence Research Agency, December 2005, p. 38, www.foi.se. See also: "Biological, Israel, Production Capability," Jane's CBRN Assessments, 24 July 2009, www.janes.com.
[9] David Friedman, "Preventing the Proliferation of Biological Weapons: Situation Overview and Recommendations for Israel," Strategic Assessment, Vol. 7, No. 3, www.inss.org.il.
[10] Adi Leiba et al., "Lessons Learned From Clinical Anthrax Drills: Evaluation of Knowledge and Preparedness for a Bioterrorist Threat in Israeli Emergency Departments," Annals of Emergency Medicine, Vol. 48. No. 2, pp. 194-199, 2006; and "Israel conducts large bioterrorism drill," Homeland Security Newswire, 15 January 2010.
[11] Anthony H. Cordesman, "Israeli Weapons of Mass Destruction," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 June 2008, p. 6, www.csis.org.
[12] Avner Cohen, "Israel and Chemical/Biological Weapons: History, Deterrence, and Arms Control," The Nonproliferation Review, Fall/Winter 2001, p. 40.
[13] Avner Cohen, "Israel and Chemical/Biological Weapons: History, Deterrence, and Arms Control," The Nonproliferation Review, Fall/Winter 2001, p. 39.
[14] "Chemical, Israel, Production Capability," Jane's CBRN Assessments, 23 July 2009, www.janes.com; Avner Cohen and Shane Mason, "No More Exemptions," with Shane Mason, Foreign Policy (on-line), 22 November 2013, www.foreignpolicy.com; Avner Cohen and Shane Mason, "Coming Clean on Chemical Weapons: Israel Abandoned Them a Long Time Ago. Why Won't It Say So?" with Shane Mason, Foreign Affairs (on-line), 19 September 2013, www.foreignaffairs.com.
[15] Avner Cohen and Shane Mason, "No More Exemptions," with Shane Mason, Foreign Policy (on-line), 22 November 2013, www.foreignpolicy.com; Avner Cohen and Shane Mason, "Coming Clean on Chemical Weapons: Israel Abandoned Them a Long Time Ago. Why Won't It Say So?" with Shane Mason, Foreign Affairs (on-line), 19 September 2013, www.foreignaffairs.com; Barak Ravid, "Israel opts to stay vague on chemical arms in wake of Syria disarmament," Haaretz, 31 October 2013, www.haaretz.com.
[16] Gerald M. Steinberg, "Israeli Responses to the Threat of Chemical Warfare," Armed Forces & Society, Volume 20, No. 1, Fall 1993, pp. 85-101.
[17] David Friedman, "Preventing the Proliferation of Biological Weapons: Situation Overview and Recommendations for Israel," Strategic Assessment, Vol. 7, No. 3, www.inss.org.il.
[18] Duncan Lennox, ed., "Ballistic Missile Capabilities, Manufacturing Countries," Jane's Strategic Weapon Systems, Issue 48, (Surrey: Jane's Information Group, January 2008), p. 533; Duncan Lennox, ed., "Offensive Weapons Table," Jane's Strategic Weapon System, Issue 50, (Surrey: Jane's Information Group, January 2009), pp. 527-532; and Duncan Lennox, ed. "Defensive Weapons Table," Jane's Strategic Weapon System, Issue 50, (Surrey: Jane's Information Group, January 2009), pp. 535-537.
[19] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005) p. 261.
[20] "Military: A new ballistic missile for Israel?" Stratfor, 17 January 2008, www.stratfor.com.
[21] See: Doug Richardson, "Israel launches two-stage ballistic missile," Jane's Missiles and Rockets, 4 February 2008, www.janes.com; and "Military: A new ballistic missile for Israel?" Stratfor, 17 January 2008, www.stratfor.com.
[22] Yaakov Katz, "Israel Gets Fourth Sub from Germany," Jerusalem Post, 4 May 2012, www.lexisnexis.com; Yaakov Katz, "J'lem and Berlin Sign Contract for Sixth Submarine," the Jerusalem Post, 5 February 2012, www.jpost.com; "Operation Samson: Israel's Deployment of Nuclear Missiles on Submarines from Germany," Der Spiegel, 4 June 2012, www.spiegel.de; Douglas Frantz, "Israel adds fuel to nuclear dispute," Los Angeles Times, October 12, 2003.
[23] "Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)," Fact Sheet by the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, U.S. Department of State, 4 March 2009, www.state.gov, accessed 16 May 2011.
[24] Jeremy M. Sharp, "U.S. Foreign Aid to Israel," CRS Report for Congress, 16 September 2010; Isabel Kershner, "Israel Rolls Out First Mobile Battery of Antirocket System," The New York Times, 27 March 2011, www.nytimes.com; Yaakov Katz, "IAF to conduct first test of Arrow 3 early next year," The Jerusalem Post, 27 May 2010, www.jpost.com; Alon Ben-David, "Adapt or die: Israel Defence Force," Jane's Defence Weekly, 1 May 2008, www.janes.com; David Eshel, "Examining Israel's BMD Options," Jane's Intelligence Review, 1 September 2000, www.janes.com; and "Israel: Anti-rocket system succeeds in tests," Stratfor, 7 January 2010, www.stratfor.com.
[25] Thom Shanker and David Sanger, "No Bunker-Buster Bomb in Israel's Weapons Deal with U.S.," The New York Times, 22 April 2013, www.nytimes.com.
[26] Gili Cohen, "Israel's most advanced satellite, Ofek 10, enters orbit," Haaratz, 10 April 2014, www.haaratz.com; Ruth Eglash, "Introducing Ofek 10, the just-launched Israeli satellite likely designed to keep tabs on Iran," The Washington Post, 10 April 2014, www.washingtonpost.com.
[27] Gili Cohen, "Israel's most advanced satellite, Ofek 10, enters orbit," Haaratz, 10 April 2014, www.haaratz.com.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on Israel

  • Widely believed to have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for 100 to 200 nuclear warheads
  • Developing a comprehensive multi-layered missile defense system
  • Not a state party to the NPT, CTBT, BTWC, CWC or MTCR