Last of the Nuclear Mohicans

In his personality and his actions, Israel Dostrovsky embodied David Ben-Gurion's ideal of the Zionist scientist - a researcher who divided his time between science and security.

It's been a month since the death of Israel Dostrovsky, the last of the Mohicans belonging to an anonymous group to whom the State of Israel owes so much. The fruit of their labors has indeed had a dramatic effect on Israel's situation. They were the pioneers of the country's nuclear initiative, who unquestioningly accepted that their activities had to remain secret.

Dostrovsky was the most veteran and high-ranking of them all. He was there almost from the beginning - as commander, general manager and the figure at the top of the pyramid, as well as tutor and consultant in his latter years. It was on his watch that the Israel Atomic Energy Commission underwent the trials and tribulations of its (second ) birth. It was under his baton that the State of Israel chalked up achievements in the nuclear arena. But perhaps the most dramatic and fraught moment of all in his life, according to foreign publications, was on the eve of the Six-Day War, when he stood on the other side of the thick glass window as his staff "tickled the dragon's tail."

In his personality and his actions, Dostrovsky embodied David Ben-Gurion's ideal of the Zionist scientist - a researcher who divided his time between science and security. When the War of Independence broke out, Dostrovsky, who was born in Russia in 1918 and immigrated to Palestine with his family at age 1, left behind his academic work in London and returned home. He joined what later became known as the Weizmann Institute, setting up its isotope research department. Parallel to this, as a major in the Israel Defense Forces Science Corps, he set up the Hemed Gimmel research unit, which carried out a geological survey of the Negev. This unit was renamed Machon 4, became part of the Defense Ministry and constituted the basis for the IAEC, which was established in secret in 1952.

From that time on, Dostrovsky wore both hats - of public scientific work and of the invisible national security activity. In those early days, the line between the two was blurred; it was not easy to figure out where the work of the Weizmann Institute's isotopes department ended, and where that of the laboratories of Machon 4 of the IAEC (later the Nuclear Center at Nahal Soreq ) began. Perhaps this was not the way things ought to have been done, but in general the Zionist enterprise has never adopted the due-process mentality.

During the years 1955 to 1957, the period during which Israel's nuclear vision became more concrete, Dostrovsky offered his own concept of how the entire project should be set up. His approach was radically different - scientifically, organizationally and even in its approach to the human factor - from the Dimona initiative that Shimon Peres eventually adopted. When Dimona was set up, Dostrovsky stepped aside. However, a few years later, when it became clear that the nuclear initiative Peres had established along a "divide and rule" basis that involved different organizations had run into problems with coordination, the need arose for an authoritative professional leadership that would integrate a host of components under one organizational roof.

This was Dostrovsky's finest hour. He was the right man at the right time. In a matter of months he had breathed new life into the organization that until then had been heading toward oblivion. Dostrovsky reestablished the IAEC as a supra-national framework under whose responsibility all nuclear matters would fall. In retrospect he laid the firm foundations, as if from scratch, for national activity in the nuclear arena. The principles of caution and internal review that he established are still, to this day, fundamental elements in the way Israel conducts itself in this realm.

I spoke with Dostrovsky in his office at the Weizmann Institute several times in the past few years. It was the lucidity of his thought in particular that intensified the strong sense of sadness, almost depression, that I felt upon hearing his words. He was anxious about the country's future and fate. At the base of his anxiety was the feeling that it had lost its compass, that it was moving toward self-ruin. It was saddening to realize that someone who had devoted so much of his life to ensure the physical existence of the Zionist homeland seemed to be losing his faith in and assurance of the Zionist project.

We spoke also about Iran's nuclear plans. Once again, he expressed a deep pessimism. He thought it was very likely that Iran already had a bomb in the basement; at all events, he was convinced Iran could well have had enough fissile material for the preparation of a bomb or two. He also believed that one should treat with gravity the possibility that Iran would use a bomb to destroy the Zionist enterprise. I was amazed to realize just how little faith the person who built Israel's existential deterrence had in its actual value as a means for preventing destruction.

I couldn't help but ponder what the true legacy was of this son of giants.

Avner Cohen is a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California. His new book is "The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb" (Columbia University Press ).