Recently new high-resolution photographs of Israel's nuclear reactor and research center, near Dimona, have been made public. Do these photos provide new information about Israeli nuclear weapons capability?
No. The photos show major new construction, but cannot tell what if anything this construction means. In any event, the important facts were nailed down over 34 years ago. In 1986 a former Israeli nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, published photographs from inside the Dimona facility in the London Sunday Times.
Based on this evidence, it was estimated at the time that Israel had an arsenal of about 150 nuclear weapons. But even this only confirmed what was already conventional wisdom in intelligence circles: that Israel had crossed the nuclear Rubicon in the late 1960s.
Avner Cohen, an Israeli researcher working with publicly available sources, painted a convincing picture of this development in a 1998 book. Cohen documented the critical U.S.-Israel negotiations leading to a key deal in 1969: Israel would not go public with its bomb, and the U.S. would not press Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty.
For his pains, Cohen was interrogated at length when he returned to Israel following the book's publication. But Israel's sensitivity to such revelations has diminished over time. What good is nuclear deterrence unless the other side knows that the bomb is actually there? Even Vanunu's impious exposé may have served a purpose.
Here I must admit a personal connection. I first published an article on Israel's nuclear weapons posture in 1972, while living in Israel. LIke Cohen, I used only public sources. Years later, I met a former high-ranking Israeli defense official who told me: "I know more about you than you know about yourself."
And how could that be? "You wrote about Israel's nuclear weapons policy, and it seemed like you knew too much. So we investigated." I must have been cleared, but after that I sometimes felt that, with my conclusions now confirmed, I did know too much.
When Vanunu was about to go on trial, his lawyer contacted me as a possible witness to testify that most of his "revelations" were already widely known or assumed. But before I could take my place in history, Vanunu switched lawyers.
It didn't help him. After serving an 18-year sentence, he was released in 2004 but forbidden from leaving the country and remains closely monitored. Meanwhile, Israel's nuclear weapons remain, in Avner Cohen's words, "the worst-kept secret."