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The Secret History of How Israel Built Nuclear Weapons via The National Interest

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 administration

by Zachary Keck

Key Point: 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.

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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. 

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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. How much the Dimona nuclear facilities cost to build is not known, but Israel likely paid France at least $80 million to $100 million in 1960 dollars. That was a massive amount of money for Israel at the time. Furthermore, Ben-Gurion worried that if he diverted defense funds for the nuclear project he invite opposition from the military, which was struggling to field a conventional army that could defeat Israel’s Arab enemies.

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As documented by Michael Karpin in his excellent history of the Israel’s nuclear program, The Bomb in the Basement, Ben-Gurion directed his staff simply to “call Abe,” referring to Abe Feinberg. Feinberg was a prominent New York businessman, philanthropist and Jewish American leader with close ties to the Democratic Party. Before America’s entry into World War II, Feinberg had raised money to help European Jews emigrate to Palestine. After the war ended, he—like Ben-Gurion—went to Europe to view the Holocaust concentration camps. He also helped smuggle Holocaust survivors into Palestine at a time when the British had created blockades to prevent illegal Jewish immigration. 

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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.

Read more at The Secret History of How Israel Built Nuclear Weapons

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