Israel Went Nuclear
By Shimon Peres
September 11, 2017
It was October 24, 1956, at the villa in Sèvres where the
French and Israeli leadership were meeting to finalize the plans for Operation
Suez. Ben-Gurion and I stood in one of the mansion’s sweeping spaces; it was
at once a ballroom, an art museum, and a well-stocked saloon. Across the way,
French foreign minister Christian Pineau and defense minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury
were deep in conversation, but otherwise unoccupied. I sensed an opportunity,
perhaps the perfect moment.
I turned to Ben-Gurion and said in the quietest whisper,
“I think I can get it done now.” He gave me a subtle nod of agreement. I
took a deep, steeling breath.
I approached the two gentlemen, who by then were dear
friends, and raised an issue that caught both by surprise. I had come over to
discuss one of Israel’s most ambitious aspirations: to enter the nuclear age.
To do so, we would need something from France—something no country in history
had ever given another.
Our interest in nuclear energy was not new. It had been a
subject of great intellectual curiosity for Ben-Gurion and myself long before
that fateful moment in Sèvres. Neither of us was an expert regarding nuclear
energy; at best, we were enthusiasts. But we both saw great potential in its
peaceful pursuit. For his part, Ben-Gurion believed that only science could
compensate for what nature had denied us. Israel had no oil, and it lacked
access to sufficient fresh water; nuclear energy held the potential to solve
both problems—countries like France were using it not only to create a
reliable energy source, but also as a means of desalinating salt water. He also
believed, as I did, that there existed great intellectual and economic value at
the frontier of technology. By making investments in the cutting edge of
science, by building talent and expertise at our universities, we believed we
could invigorate the untapped minds of a nation.
(Photo courtesy Custom House/Harper Collins)
There was great power in this idea, to be sure. But in
truth, it was a political motivation, more than a scientific one, that animated
my interest. If we were to succeed in building a reactor, our enemies would
never believe its purpose to be peaceful. Israel was already viewed with such
intense suspicion by those opposed to our existence that I was certain neither
public statements nor private assurances nor even the presentation of concrete
evidence would sway skeptics from believing that we possessed the capacity for
nuclear war. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, the “reputation of
power is power.” My theory was its corollary: The reputation of nuclear is
deterrence. And deterrence, I believed, was the first step on the path toward
At the time, the Arab world had made commitments to
Israel’s annihilation a litmus test for leadership; indeed, every Middle
Eastern politician or general who hoped to ascend had to prove he was more
intent on destroying us than his rival was. I believed that sowing doubt in
their ability to actually do so was our highest security imperative.
Over time, my conversations with Ben-Gurion shifted from
the theoretical to the practical. If we were to even entertain such an effort,
we intended to understand exactly what it would require. First, it was to be a
massive undertaking—both in terms of the scale of the construction and the
scientific capability it required. Second, Israel lacked the raw materials and
the engineering experience required to build a reactor. At the same time, we
well understood that cutting corners was not an option, either—with nuclear
energy, compromise and catastrophe are one and the same.
What we needed was help, and as the country with whom
we’d built our closest friendship, France represented an opportunity. As
Europe’s most advanced country in the nuclear field, it also represented our
best option. Indeed, the French industry had built teams of engineers and
scientists with precise expertise. France’s universities were the best place
in the world to study nuclear physics. They had at their disposal everything we
would need to build a nuclear reactor.
Ben-Gurion had decided it would not be enough for me to
raise the issue with the French. I had to make an explicit request: to sell
Israel a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes. It was a request without
precedent, and one I expected my friends to decline. They were already taking a
great risk violating the Western arms embargo to sell us weapons in secret. But
something of this magnitude, if discovered, was far more dangerous, with the
potential to damage French relations with both its Arab partners and its Western
allies. Still, I felt that if such an agreement were possible between any
countries, it was possible between France and Israel. And so I set out to try.
After their momentary shock at my question, Pineau and
Bourgès-Maunoury excused themselves to the other side of the villa to discuss
the matter in private. The timing of the request was not a coincidence, and I
suspected they understood this. At the very same moment, Moshe Dayan was in an
adjacent room with his French and British counterparts, drafting the Sèvres
Protocol, which would govern the Sinai campaign, including the requirement that
we attack first. We all knew that Ben-Gurion had agreed to that plan only at the
urging of the French. I wanted Bourgès-Maunoury and Pineau to remember that,
and to consider it when weighing the risks inherent in my request of them.
A few moments later, the two returned. To my utter
surprise, they nodded in agreement.
“I am ready to draft the agreement right away,” said
While we had the unanimous support of the French senior
leadership, we arrived back in Jerusalem to find near-unanimous dissent. Golda
Meir insisted that such a project would hurt Israel’s relationship with the
United States, while Isser Harel, the Mossad chief, raised fears of a Soviet
response. Some predicted an invasion by ground forces, while others envisioned
an attack from the air. The head of the foreign relations committee said he
feared the project would be “so expensive that we shall be left without bread
and even without rice”—an acknowledgment that in the age of austerity, we
were still struggling to feed our people. For his part, Levi Eshkol, then the
finance minister, promised we wouldn’t see a penny from him. Among the group,
there was disagreement only about which disastrous outcome was most likely.
The response was no more encouraging within the scientific
community. Israel’s physicists voiced objections to entangling scientific work
with government action, which they feared would stifle their research work and
harm their international reputations. But more to the point, they argued that
such a pursuit was both unwise and impractical. How naïve they thought I was
for believing a state so small could undertake a task so large. This was not
vision, it was delusion, and they would have nothing to do with it. When I
approached the Weizmann Institute, the most prestigious institute in all of
Israel, the head of the physics department said I was dreaming irresponsibly,
that surely such an effort would lead Israel down a dark and dangerous path. He
made sure I understood that his institute would play no role in whatever I
Innovation, I have come to understand, is always an uphill
climb. But rarely does it find so many obstacles arrayed against it at all once.
We had no money, no engineers, no support from the physics community or the
cabinet or the military leadership or the opposition. “What are we going to
do?” Ben-Gurion asked me late one night, as we sat quietly in his office. It
was the operative question. What we had was a French promise—only that, and
I was often reminded about how unusual my relationship with
Ben-Gurion had become—how rare it was to have a prime minister place so much
trust in a young man with a junior title. Again and again, he had taken a risk
in putting me in charge of important and controversial projects. And so while
the reasonable answer to his question would have been to admit defeat, I decided
that I owed it to him to find another way. Failing honestly and with integrity
was something I could accept—but only if I was sure that my efforts to succeed
had been worthy of the trust he had placed in me. In this case, that trust was
so vast that, rather than surrender, I proposed an alternative plan.
That plan drew upon my experience with Al Schwimmer. The
lack of public resources could be made up for with private resources, I argued.
And with the right kind of recruiting effort, I believed we could build a team
of Israeli engineers who could work alongside their French counterparts.
“If we fail to secure the money and the team, we can
accept defeat,” I said. “Until then, I think it would be foolish not to make
Ben-Gurion agreed. “Go then,” he told me. “Give order
to the story.”
We took to the phones and made passionate, personal (and
highly confidential) appeals to some of Israel’s most reliable donors from
around the world. In short order, we had raised enough money to cover half the
cost of the reactor—more than enough to start building our team.
We were lucky to count Yisrael Dostrovsky as one of our
early members. A decorated Israeli scientist, Dostrovsky had invented a process
for manufacturing heavy water and sold it to the French years earlier. But even
he could not compete with the brilliance of Ernst David Bergmann, whom I
approached to join the mission. In 1934, legend has it, Chaim Weizmann sought
Albert Einstein’s recommendation for a scientist to lead his newly created
institute outside Tel Aviv. Einstein gave him only one name—that of Ernst
Bergmann, who had earned his total confidence. As one of Israel’s only
physicists in favor of our efforts, he would quickly earn my confidence, as
With Bergmann and Dostrovsky, we had scientific know-how.
But what we needed even more was a project manager whom we could trust with such
a delicate task. We needed a pedantic stickler, someone allergic to
compromise—especially given the dangers involved in radioactive work. And yet
we also needed someone who was agile, someone willing to take on a project for
which he would certainly lack expertise. There was a natural tension that
existed between those requirements, one that quickly whittled down my list of
candidates to one.
Manes Pratt was a decorated academic with a wealth of
real-world experience. We met during the War of Independence, when we worked
together on the frantic building up of the IDF. He was consistently and
insistently precise, the kind of man for whom perfection is not a distant
pursuit, but a minimum ante. He was quick-footed and quick-witted, and he
demanded in those around him the same relentless work ethic he practiced.
When I explained my proposal and the position I wanted him
to consider, he looked as though he could have struck me. He couldn’t disguise
“Are you crazy?” he demanded. “I don’t have the
slightest idea what it would take to build a reactor. I don’t know how it
looks; I don’t even know what it is! How could you expect me to take charge of
such a project?”
“Manes, look: I know that you don’t know anything yet.
But if there is somebody in this country who can become an expert after studying
it for three months, that person is clearly you.”
His agitation started to subside. “And what exactly would
I suggested that we would send him to France for three
months to study nuclear reactors alongside the experts who would help us build
one. And I promised that if he returned to Israel after that time still
uncomfortable with his fluency in the topic, he could simply return to his
previous work. With no requirement for a permanent commitment, Pratt ultimately
agreed. And to no one’s surprise, when he returned from France, he did so as
the finest nuclear expert we would ever come to know.
With the leadership in place, I turned to the work of
building the rest of the team. I knew that the older generation of physicists
was deeply opposed to our efforts, but I suspected that we could find students
and young graduates who were eager to pursue such an ambitious project. Having
been turned away by the Weizmann Institute, I turned to the Israeli Institute of
Technology, in Haifa, known as the Technion. There I found a group of scientists
and engineers who were eager to take the leap alongside us. Like Pratt, I
intended to send each Technion recruit to France for a period of study.
The next part of the challenge lay less in convincing the
young scientists to sign up and more in helping them convince their own
families. We intended to locate the reactor in the Negev, near Beersheba, which
at the time was like the end of the world. The young Israeli families were
understandably reluctant to leave the modern cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv for a
harsh and distant desert. And if this was how the Israelis felt, I suspected the
French contractors would be apoplectic. So I pledged to them not just to build
an industrial facility, but to build a community—indeed, a whole separate
suburb in Beersheba with all they needed for a high quality of life: good
schools, a modern hospital, a shopping court—even a hair salon.
After some reluctance, the families put their trust in me
and the work began. The students went off to France to study nuclear
engineering—and I joined them, not as the leader of the project but as a peer.
Chemistry and nuclear physics were challenging subjects, to be sure, and I came
to them without any previous training. But I felt it essential to gain a degree
of mastery in the science that would be driving the project. In previous
endeavors, I had come to understand that in addition to a clear vision and
strategy, true leadership requires intricate knowledge—a facility with the
granular details of every aspect of the mission. If I were to lead a group of
scientists and engineers, I had an obligation to understand the work I was
asking them to undertake. And so, alongside these young physicists, I spent day
and night studying atomic particles and nuclear energy, and the process required
to harness its power.
Funds and scientists in place, what remained was the work
of formalizing the partnership with France. We had signed an initial agreement
laying out our intentions in broad terms, but there were still details requiring
discussion. In the summer of 1957, I flew to Paris to begin making arrangements.
When I arrived, Bourgès-Maunoury was the newly minted
prime minister. Guy Mollet’s government had fallen in June. For Israel, there
was serendipity in the timing. Though Mollet had always been a generous and
reliable partner, I had developed an especially close friendship with Bourgès-Maunoury.
His sense of humor could be grim and cynical, but in truth, he was as hopeful an
optimist as I, and he consistently looked upon Israel with an instinctive sense
of obligation. His support for the Jewish state resided somewhere deep in his
soul, and I felt there was nothing of him I could not ask.
Together we worked through other agreements, which outlined
the ways our two nations would cooperate. Bourgès-Maunoury was supportive, but
Pineau, who by then had become foreign minister, had raised concerns about the
proposed wording. I was sure that, in normal circumstances, Pineau and I could
find common ground and common language—that his concerns could be relieved
quite easily through compromise. But just as we were processing the substance of
Pineau’s objections, Bourgès-Maurnoury’s government, just formed, began to
crumble. For Israel, this was nothing short of a crisis. We needed to secure
support from both men before they no longer had the power to provide it.
I was in Israel when I learned the French parliament was
preparing a vote of no confidence in Bourgès-Maunoury, and set off for Paris at
once. By the time I arrived, it was clear the government would fall the
following night. I had just one day—to persuade Pineau to agree to the
proposed arrangement, to secure the necessary two signatures, to end the crisis,
and to save the program. I was suddenly a witness to and participant in one of
the greatest dramas of my life.
I started with Pineau. When I arrived at his office, it was
clear he had been expecting me. He greeted me kindly but wasted no time
informing me that his position was final, and that he was firmly opposed to the
agreement as worded. His concerns were largely based in a fear that the
agreement would become public. I pleaded with him to give me a final chance to
persuade him. Out of respect for our long-standing friendship, he obliged.
I responded as thoroughly as I could. I spoke from the
heart about the genuine anguish I felt for my state. I wanted to be sure he
understood the power he held in his hands, and the consequence of his decision,
one way or the other. This was not a moment that would be forgotten; it was one
upon which history would hinge.
Finally, he spoke.
“I accept your arguments, Shimon,” he declared to my
utter surprise. “You’ve convinced me.”
It was an unexpected and energizing victory, but with time
running short, I knew that Pineau’s acquiescence was insufficient to secure
the deal on its own. I pressed for urgency.
“What is your consent worth after the government falls?
Perhaps you could call Bourgès-Maunoury. He needs to hear it from you.”
Pineau agreed, but he was unable to reach Bourgès-Maunoury.
We learned he was in session, presiding over his final cabinet meeting. With
Bourgès-Maunoury behind closed doors, there was no way I could get to him
before the government fell.
I refused to accept this. “Give me your consent in
writing, then, and I’ll bring it to Bourgès-Maunoury straightaway!”
Pineau obliged, though he seemed convinced the exercise was
futile. I thanked him for his extraordinary effort and friendship, then raced
for the door.
I arrived at parliament out of breath and undeterred. I
didn’t know how I’d get to Bourgès-Maunoury, but I hoped an answer would
reveal itself. And indeed, as I headed up the stairs of the French parliament,
the answer was heading down them: it was an aide to Bourgès-Maunoury, one I had
come to know well over the
years. He recognized me and greeted me in French. I explained the situation in all its stressful detail, then scribbled a note to Bourgès-Maunoury quickly on a leaf of paper.
“Please deliver this to the prime minister,” I asked
him. “It is a matter of the greatest urgency.” The aide agreed. He took the
note and disappeared into the chamber while I stood anxiously awaiting a
A few minutes later, a voice called to me from down the
hallway. “Bonjour, Shimon!” It was Bourgès-Maunoury, embattled but stoic.
He explained that after reading my note, he took the unprecedented step of
temporarily adjourning the meeting.
“Only for a true friend,” he whispered.
I showed him the letter from Pineau and explained why the
stakes were so high. I needed him to return to his meeting and get his cabinet
to approve the deal before the end of the session. And I needed him to sign the
authorization before his government fell. Bourgès-Maunoury promised his
assistance. He would return to the meeting and get swift approval, then
temporarily adjourn the meeting once again—giving him just enough time to
affix his signature to the final agreement.
“Go wait for me in my office,” he suggested. “I’ll
come find you.”
And so I waited. For hours I waited. But Bourgès-Maunoury
never came. He had been unable to find a way to excuse himself. The opposition
had made their move on the vote of no confidence, and there was little that
Bourgès-Maunoury could do to create a delay. Late into the night, the
government fell. The document remained unsigned.
The next morning, I returned to Bourgès-Maunoury’s
office, as dejected and exhausted as he was. He was now the former prime
minister. I didn’t know what to say.
“I understand from you that my socialist friend has
consented to the agreement.”
“Wonderful,” he said. “This should take care of it
He took a piece of stationery from a desk that was no
longer his and drafted a letter to the chairman of the French Atomic Energy
Commission. The French government had approved the deal, he confirmed, and the
chairman should fully cooperate in its execution. He signed it as France’s
prime minister. At the top of the page, he wrote the previous day’s date.
I asked no questions. I said nothing at all. What was there
to say? Bourgès-Maunoury could see the relief in my eyes. He could feel the
depth of my appreciation. In that moment, what he had done for Israel—what he
had done for me—was the most generous display of friendship I had ever known.
The following month, the French established a $10 million line of credit for
Israel. At last, it was time to break ground.
I’ve told many people that I built Dimona in order to get
to Oslo. Its purpose was not to fight a war, but to prevent one. It was not the
reactor that mattered but the echo it generated. I had spent so much of my youth
trying to secure Israel for its people. But this was a different kind of
security altogether. This was the security of knowing the state would never be
destroyed—a first step toward peace that started with peace of mind. In this
way, I felt that our work on Dimona, an effort once marked for certain failure,
had fulfilled the covenant I had made with my grandfather, but on a far grander
scale: to always remain Jewish and ensure the Jewish people always remain.