updated 4/26/2006 6:00:32 PM ET 2006-04-26T22:00:32

Yuval Neeman, founder of Israel’s space program and a key figure in the nation’s nuclear efforts, died Wednesday, his daughter said. He was 80.

Neeman suffered a stroke earlier this week and was taken to Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital, where he died, the hospital said.

Neeman, a world-renowned nuclear physicist, also played a role in Israeli politics. In 1979, he was one of the founders of the hawkish Tehiya Party, which broke away from the ruling Likud in opposition to Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt. He served as science minister from 1990 to 1992.

Born in 1925 in Tel Aviv, he studied at Israel’s Technion University, Imperial College in London, Advanced School for War Studies in Paris and received a Ph.D. from the University of London. He received Israel’s highest civilian honor, the Israel Prize, in 1969, for his work in the exact sciences.

He was a pioneer in Israel’s nuclear program, serving as a member of the country’s Nuclear Energy Commission between 1952 and 1961 and scientific director of one of Israel’s nuclear reactors during the two following years, according to biographies by the Technion and the Israeli parliament.

Although Israel has always insisted it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, it is thought to have a large number of nuclear weapons developed at its reactors, and Neeman was said to have played an important part in the program. He rarely spoke about the subject in public, but he indicated clearly in the 1980s that Israel had the components to build nuclear weapons.

The Technion credited Neeman with discovering the principles of tiny atomic particles called quarks, although another scientist received the Nobel Prize for the find.

Neeman established the Israel Space Agency in 1983, devoted to research and development of Israeli rockets and satellites. He died a day after Israel’s latest satellite was launched into orbit on a Russian rocket. The satellite, Eros B, has the ability to photograph objects as small as two feet across and could keep close tabs on Iran’s nuclear program.

At the height of his academic career, Neeman served as president of Tel Aviv University from 1971 to 1975.

Neeman is survived by his wife, two children, two grandchildren and a sister. His coffin will lie at Tel Aviv University on Thursday, and he will be buried at Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery, his daughter said.

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