The inside story of how Israel built nuclear weapons


This was not the end of Feinberg’s involvement in U.S.-Israeli relations, however. In fact, after the Democrats retook the White House in the 1960 election, Feinberg became an unofficial advisor to both JFK and LBJ. For instance, in 1961 Feinberg led the effort to persuade Ben-Gurion to allow American inspections of the Dimona reactor.

Although Israel doesn’t officially acknowledge it, it is well understood that the country possesses a nuclear weapon arsenal (although the exact number of warheads are in dispute). It is similarly well understood that the United States opposed Israel’s nuclear weapons program during the John F. Kennedy and, to a lesser extent, Lyndon B. Johnson administrations. One part of the history that is less well known is that much of the funding for Israel’s nuclear weapons program came from private Americans in an effort that was spearheaded by, Abraham Feinberg, a prominent American who served as an unofficial advisor to both President Kennedy and President Johnson.

Israel’s interest in nuclear weapons basically dates back to the founding of the Jewish state in 1948. The country’s founding leader, David Ben-Gurion, was haunted both by the Holocaust and the unremitting hostility Israel faced from its much larger Arab neighbors. Ben-Gurion viewed nuclear weapons as a last resort option for ensuring the survival of the Jewish state in case its enemies ever used their much larger populations and economies to build conventionally superior militaries.

The problem Ben-Gurion and his closest advisors faced was that their young, poor, and relatively unsophisticated country didn’t possess the necessary technological and material resources to support an indigenous nuclear weapons program. Israel’s best hope of acquiring nuclear weapons came from finding a foreign patron. Fortunately for Israel, contemporary circumstances created conditions for it to obtain this support.

Specifically, during the mid-1950s France’s control over Algeria—which it considered part of France and not just another colony—was increasingly contested by a domestic insurgency that was receiving substantial support from the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. Paris responded by eliciting Israel’s help in providing intelligence on the Algerian situation in return for French conventional weaponry. The opportunity to transform this into nuclear cooperation presented itself in 1956 when Paris asked Israel to provide France and Britain with a pretext to intervene militarily in what became the Suez Canal crisis.

Ben-Gurion had major reservations about involving Israel in the scheme. These were overcome when France agreed to provide Israel with a small research reactor similar to the EL-3 reactor France had built at Saclay. Of course, the Suez invasion quickly went awry with both the United States and Soviet Union threatening Israel, France and Britain in different ways to get them to withdraw. France was unable to protect Israel from the superpowers’ threats. Before agreeing to withdraw, however, Israel demanded that Paris sweeten the nuclear cooperation. France agreed to provide Israel with a much larger plutonium-producing reactor at Dimona, natural uranium to fuel the reactor, and a reprocessing plant—basically everything Israel would need to use the plant to produce plutonium for a bomb except for heavy water.

This was a major coup—no country before or since has provided another state with such an extensive amount of the technology required to build a nuclear bomb. Still, it was only half the battle. Ben-Gurion still had to come up with the funds necessary to pay for the nuclear deal for France.

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