Key point: The country will likely not declare itself a nuclear power any time soon; ambiguity over ownership of nukes has served the country very well.
In a private email leaked to the public in September of 2016, former secretary of state and retired U.S. Army general Colin Powell alluded to Israel having an arsenal of “200 nuclear weapons.” While this number appears to be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that Israel does have a small but powerful nuclear stockpile, spread out among its armed forces. Israeli nuclear weapons guard against everything from defeat in conventional warfare to serving to deter hostile states from launching nuclear, chemical and biological warfare attacks against the tiny country. Regardless, the goal is the same: to prevent the destruction of the Jewish state.
Israel set off to join the nuclear club in the 1950s. David Ben-Gurion was reportedly obsessed with developing the bomb as insurance against Israel’s enemies. Although an ambitious goal for such a small, initially impoverished country, Israel did not have any security guarantees with larger, more powerful states—particularly the United States. The country was on its own, even buying conventional weapons off the black market to arm the new Israeli Defense Forces. Nuclear weapons would be the ultimate form of insurance for a people that had suffered persecution but now had the means to control their own destiny.
Ben-Gurion instructed his science adviser, Ernst David Bergmann, to direct Israel’s clandestine nuclear effort and set up and chair the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. Shimon Peres, who later went on to serve as president and prime minister of Israel, cultivated contacts with a sympathetic France that resulted in the latter agreeing to supply a large, heavy water nuclear reactor and an underground plutonium reprocessing plant, which would turn spent reactor fuel into the key ingredient for nuclear weapons. The reactor was built at Dimona in the Negev desert.