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Overview Last updated: December, 2013

Situated in a high conflict region, Israel possesses advanced conventional military capabilities, and has traditionally maintained a policy of opacity regarding any WMD programs. While experts generally agree that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, no such 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 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 program in the 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 outside the town of Dimona, where a French-supplied plutonium production reactor went critical in the early 1960s.[2] Israel reportedly built its first primitive nuclear device in May 1967 in the run-up to the Six-Day War.[3] Based on 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 100 to 200 nuclear warheads.[4]

Officially, Israel has declared that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, but it remains a non-signatory to the NPT. Israel's presumed possession of nuclear weapons has led to an impasse in Middle East arms control negotiations, as Israeli officials assert that comprehensive peace in the region is a precondition to Israeli participation in a Middle East Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction-Free Zone.[5]

Biological

The Israeli Center 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, Israel openly publishes defensive research on biological weapons agents. [6] While observers have identified numerous instances of behavior that could be consistent with either interest in or the existence of an offensive biological weapons capability, official U.S. Government assessments offer conflicting interpretations of Israel's biological warfare program.[7] Numerous factors, most notably geographic proximity to Israel's most likely adversaries, limit the 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, 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 meticulous 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 a deterrence 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).

During the 1991 Iraq War, Israel took the unprecedented step of equipping its entire civilian population with gas masks.[15] In 2004, Israel adopted export controls on chemical agents and materials consistent with Australia Group standards, conveying serious concern over the threat of chemical weapons and terrorism.[16]

Missile

Since the 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.[17] Israel's early missile program developments benefited from French and later South African collaboration.[18] Israel also possesses a national space program that has previously shared technology with its 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 deployment of the more sophisticated medium-range Jericho-2 in 1990.[19] While Israel 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 remain unknown.[20] 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.[21] While Israel is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), it abides by its guidelines.[22] Two of four planned components of Israel's multi-layered missile defense system have also entered service.[23] 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. [24]

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.
[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," inBiological 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.
[15] Gerald M. Steinberg, "Israeli Responses to the Threat of Chemical Warfare," Armed Forces & Society, Volume 20, No. 1, Fall 1993, pp. 85-101.
[16] David Friedman, "Preventing the Proliferation of Biological Weapons: Situation Overview and Recommendations for Israel," Strategic Assessment, Vol. 7, No. 3, www.inss.org.il.
[17] 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.
[18] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005) p. 261.
[19] "Military: A new ballistic missile for Israel?," Stratfor, 17 January 2008, www.stratfor.com.
[20] 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.
[21] 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, 05 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.
[22] "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.
[23] 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.
[24] 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.

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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