Former IDF chief reveals new details of Israel's nuclear program
Tzvi Tzur preceded Yitzhak Rabin as chief of staff and was Defense Minister Dayan's deputy in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.
In the tense period at the end of May and the beginning of June 1967, with Israel feeling choked in a tightening siege, Lt. Gen. Dov Tamari was summoned urgently to a meeting with a senior figure from the General Staff. As a former commander of Sayeret Matkal, the elite commando unit, "Dovik" Tamari was experienced in conducting covert cross-border operations. For the special mission, Tamari was appointed operational deputy of the senior General Staff officer. The mission? To fly to a high place in the Sinai desert, unload a certain object from the helicopter, activate it and get out fast. While the troops, who did not know exactly what kind of risk they faced, were training and readying themselves for the mission, it was canceled.
Few people were privy to the secret of the episode; among them was Lt. Gen. Tzvi (Chera ) Tzur, Israel's sixth chief of staff and, at the time, the civilian assistant to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Tzur died seven years ago, an unknown figure to those who arrived in Israel or grew up in the country in the past few decades.
For many years he was an influential figure in Israel's security and economic spheres, appreciated more as a manager than a military commander.He shied away from politics - when he was elected unwillingly to the Knesset, he resigned before being sworn in - and kept well out of the media limelight.
Tzur, whom everyone called Chera (his original surname was Czertenko ), was born in 1923. The nephew of an activist in Mapai (forerunner of Labor ) who was in charge of keeping an eye on the officer corps, Tzur was a battalion commander in the Givati infantry brigade during the War of Independence, head of the manpower department in the General Staff, GOC Central Command in the Sinai War of 1956 (when he emerged unscathed from the imbroglio over the Kafr Kassem massacre ) and the deputy to Chief of Staff Haim Laskov, who quickly got into a feud with him. As Laskov's successor, and contrary to him and to his own successor, Yitzhak Rabin, Tzur stood out for his good relations with former chief of staff Moshe Dayan and with the deputy defense minister, Shimon Peres. Rabin was identified with the activist Ahdut Ha'avoda party and with his commander in the pre-state Palmach commandos, Yigal Allon. The group - consisting of David Ben-Gurion, Dayan, Peres and their chief of staff, Tzur - faced off against the group of Finance Minister Pinhas Sapir, Foreign Minister Golda Meir, Allon and their chief of staff, Rabin.
Tzur was appointed chief of staff at the age of 37, retired at 40 and left Rabin a military that was moving away from the Sinai Campaign of Ben-Gurion, Dayan and Peres - the campaign whose collateral result was the nuclear alliance with France - and drew closer to the air and armor constellation of the Six-Day War. Tzur's tenure as chief of staff was not known for military operations: the borders were quieter than before and after his term. The major wars were internal - over budget priorities, force formation, political affiliations.
In 1962, in the midst of Tzur's term as chief of staff, the nuclear reactor at Dimona was inaugurated. It was known officially as the Nuclear Research Center - Negev, a name that sought to accentuate the scientific and shake off security connotations. The same situation prevails today, even when the director of the NRC is a reserve major general (Udi Adam ) and his superior, the director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, is a reserve rear admiral (Shaul Horev ).
The chairman of the IIAEC was and is the prime minister. As long as the premiership and the defense portfolio were both held by David Ben-Gurion, and afterward by Levi Eshkol, the flow chart of the subordinates to the supreme authority was of little importance: the IAEC and the defense establishment were accountable to the same master, in the same way as the intelligence chiefs are accountable when the prime minister, who is in charge of the Shin Bet and Mossad agencies, is also the defense minister and has under him the director of Military Intelligence.
At the same time, because of the existence of a political school of thought that objected to investment in a nuclear project for state, security or financial reasons, a chief of staff who opposed investments in the nuclear program would interfere with the line led by Ben-Gurion (until his resignation in June 1963 ) and Peres (who maintained his standing in the Defense Ministry for two more years ). Tzur gave them essential support in a period of jolts that deconstructed and reassembled Mapai.
Following his retirement from the army, Tzur was sent abroad by Peres to raise extra-budgetary funds for the nuclear project, which is always covertly influenced by finance ministers who mix political calculations with economic accounting. However, Tzur reached the height of his strength three and a half years later, when he returned to the defense establishment on the eve of the Six-Day War.
His job description, which he chose himself, was "assistant to the defense minister." For all practical purposes, he was a deputy minister with broad powers, above the ministry's director general, like the powers held by Peres from 1959, when he ceased to be the centralist director general, was elected to the Knesset and served as deputy minister to Ben-Gurion. Tzur was not an MK and was forbidden by law to be Dayan's deputy even in principle. His modest title echoed a previous post, from the beginning of the 1950s, which he was the first General Staff officer to hold, and made it a springboard for major generals: assistant to the head of the Operations Branch.
In his seven years with Dayan, from June 1967 until June 1974, Tzur was one of the three most important individuals in the defense establishment, after Dayan and alongside the chief of staff - Rabin at the end of his military career, followed by Haim Bar-Lev and David Elazar and finally Mordechai Gur. In the 1980s, he received an important security instrument, a plastering trowel, when he was appointed (together with attorney Yehoshua Rotenstreich ) to investigate aspects of the activity of the Scientific Liaison Bureau in the Defense Ministry, which entangled Israel - under the political responsibility of Rabin, Peres, Moshe Arens and Yitzhak Shamir - in the affair involving the running of the spy Jonathan Pollard in American naval intelligence. The investigative appointment was not a random one: during Tzur's period in security, the head of the SLB was accountable to him.
The nuclear sphere was perhaps the most riveting dealt with by Tzur, but not the only one. To get to the bottom of the financial imbroglio of the defense industries - Israel Aircraft Industries, Israel Military Industries and Rafael, the arms development authority - it is necessary to get to the bottom of the wasteful power struggles among them. The blurring of the lines between the researchers and developers and the manufacturers and exporters created deficits and entanglements.
Not long before he died, Tzur related a tiny fraction of the secrets he knew, and of the little he told, not everything was approved for publication. But there is great importance, perhaps even a precedent, in testimony from the inside by an individual who held key positions during the formative years of the Israeli nuclear project, because those who took part in it were not allowed to publish first-person accounts. Instead of an autobiography, Tzur deposited a historical estate, told from a personal viewpoint, at the Yitzhak Rabin Center: a comprehensive interview (with Dr. Boaz Lev Tov ). In theory it is entirely open to public perusal, but in practice it is under the strict oversight of military censorship, which remains as sensitive as a Geiger counter, especially in cases of direct testimony by someone involved in secret activity. When the security officers learned, after a prior peek at this article, what Chera had said, they tore their hair and shelved the memoirs.
The following are instructive portions of Tzur's remarks, and in particular his references to nuclear Israel in the 1960s and 1970s.
Tzur: When the Dimona story started, Rabin as deputy chief of staff and the whole General Staff were not enthusiastic. Not because it was good or bad, the nuclear development, but because it would cost money and the money would come from the defense budget, and in the end it would be at the expense of the armored corps and the air force.
And it was not operative?
Tzur: In the hope that it would not be operative.
Outside the army there were also security figures from Ahdut Ha'avoda - Yigal Allon (in the government ) and Israel Galili (in the Knesset ) - who said, in effect, that the moment it will be needed it will be impossible to count on it, it does not provide a good answer.
Tzur: It is the kind of thing that you have only to know exists. That was their conceptual mistake. The very fact that you have it instantly creates a situation in which you have to be taken into account and considered. But at the time there was opposition. True, it started with Galili and Allon, and became a tactic that spread to the General Staff as well. On the nuclear issue they fought against Peres and Ben-Gurion, [saying] they were spending money where it should not be spent. I, for one, thought they were wrong. I tried to help Shimon. And it did not cost the defense budget money. It was actually Shimon who saw to it that it did not cost money. He obtained the funding and even organized a special donors' fund. When I left the army, in 1964, I spent three months in South America on behalf of Peres, also of course on behalf of Eshkol, collecting donations from the millionaires. It wasn't done by means of United Jewish Appeal assemblies; [I went] from this millionaire to that millionaire to collect money, and we collected. From Jews, of course, and you explain what needs to be explained. We collected money specifically for this subject.
In your period as chief of staff, did it [the nuclear project] come up for discussion [with you]?
Tzur: It did not come up for discussion, because there was never a discussion in a broad forum. It might have come up for discussion under Ben-Gurion. Afterward under Eshkol: what would be and who would be, etc. The opinions here were quite sharp, but even those who were against did not allow themselves to be too much against, because this was a subject in which you could not be sure you were right. You saw to it that the defense budget would not be affected. That was really what bothered us, not the operation itself. When Eshkol, say, would tell you afterward, "All right, then, I will look after you," that was already your answer. You didn't have to fight. It wasn't the whole General Staff, mainly Rabin, a little under the influence of Allon and Galili, who were against, and maybe also Golda. It was a natural connection, roots, personal relations. He could not ignore Yigal. He ignored him afterward, when he was prime minister. At that time he definitely did not ignore him. There was a debate over it. That school of thought, of course, against the Peres school. In retrospect, a generation later, I would sometimes ask Yitzhak: who was right? Today, when you can make the judgment: who was right? Yitzhak did not say he was right. He played down the significance of his pressure against it, maybe rightfully, because it was not a war against, there were arguments.
Whatever was done was for the best. A defense industry was established - too large in retrospect. Defense manufacture was increased to dimensions of billions; Dimona was established - someone might be against it, but not for the reasons the army gave at the time; rather, for other reasons.
What sank Rafael, the arms development authority, was that it did not have orderly working papers, that it should remain research and development and send its papers to industry for manufacturing. The Rafael people said they had nothing to send. Gradually they started to build a manufacturing system for a huge order, and in the end that was what sank Rafael. It was a mistake, but not the mistake Yitzhak was talking about. A different mistake.
It's true that Rafael also engaged in projects the army did not define. That is fine, from my point of view. In the end, you know, it was precisely over this point, to his last day he thought he was right.
In the confrontation between him and Peres, the background is actually the house. One was from Allon's house, the other from the house of Dayan and Ben-Gurion. Those are two separate houses. One against the other, before they even start to talk. Each wants to enlarge his empire a little. It's a matter of relations. I always thought it was a mistake, that you could achieve more by talking. They always got into confrontations very quickly there, mostly on Yitzhak's part. Peres, you know, is more patient. He works in longer terms. Not from today to tomorrow - "If you don't give me that today, I will explode everything." With Yitzhak, that was a possibility.
The difference between Ben-Gurion and Eshkol was flagrant. In Eshkol's period the public status of the chief of staff [Rabin] rose thanks to the fact that he was the recognized security person. Under Ben-Gurion, despite the fact that he was not an army man, he was perceived as a security person. Eshkol had to start from scratch.
These days, the chief of staff attends the cabinet meeting every week, and with him the director of Military Intelligence and two adjutants sitting in back, at the meeting. In our time we did not come to cabinet meetings, other than once after some operation, if something had happened, to explain the working plan. There were very few times when I appeared at cabinet meetings. That changed a little under Eshkol, who was more in need of someone to explain. Ben-Gurion did his own explaining. It developed even more when Dayan was defense minister, because Dayan always wanted someone else to make defense-related presentations. He kept himself a little to the side, or above. And then we gradually got used to the chief of staff, for example, appearing at every cabinet meeting, so that Dayan could express a freer line, a position different from the report - not during the meeting, I think, but after the meeting. I, as the assistant to the defense minister, attended more cabinet meetings than the chief of staff, because I would go to the cabinet meeting on a regular basis for every budgetary issue, every issue concerning procurement, concerning a special operation, and Moshe let me speak and present the subject.
Yitzhak was very shy, modest and quiet until he returned from Washington. Before he entered politics he was definitely not inclined in those directions. He came back different, he was a little different.
Was it clear that Rabin would succeed you?
Tzur: Well, that had been decided in advance. Peres spoke with someone about another candidate for chief of staff, but the job was Rabin's. When Ben-Gurion appointed Laskov, I was appointed his deputy. What did we have in common? It could never have worked from the beginning. When I was appointed chief of staff, Yitzhak was deputy chief of staff. There was no kind of maneuver here, because he was deputy chief of staff. Possibly if I had chosen, I would have chosen someone else. I would have gone in the direction of Bar-Lev, or someone like that. When Yitzhak became chief of staff, then [Eshkol and his deputy, Peres] appointed a deputy for him [chief of operations, Bar-Lev].
Did Rabin fight against Rafi, even before Rafi was established? Was there a quasi-Rafi circle?
Tzur: That circle was Peres with Dayan's help, when Dayan was no longer in the system. Rafi was established in 1965. In 1964 there was no real Rafi, there was Shimon Peres. In the background there was always Ben-Gurion, who wanted the establishment of Rafi but did not manage Rafi. Peres managed Rafi and Dayan was the strongman. I was close to them. That was one of the reasons I got into it. They put a lot of pressure on me, and the Mapai government also started to degenerate a little at the time, and I had been a party member all my life, though not active. [Peres and Dayan] pressured me not only to join Rafi - that was the easy part - but also to be on the Knesset list of candidates. I did not want to be a politician. I did not want to become an MK. It would have been final, if I had entered the Knesset then. I am convinced of that. I would have become fed up with it after a year or two, but I would have already carried the stigma of a politician. We wasted a few lunches and in the end I was placed in the 10th slot on the list of Knesset candidates. I thought there was no chance that the 10th person would get into the Knesset. Suddenly I find myself as though a member of the Knesset. I went to Kadish Luz, who was the speaker of the Knesset, and told him why I did not intend to join the Knesset and did not want to take the oath, and that I wanted to be done with it immediately. The Rafi people needed the name of a chief of staff on the list. After they got 10 seats, whether you would be there or not was less important. They had plenty of people in line for the Knesset, enough functionaries.
Rafi was extremely critical of Eshkol. They accused him of neglecting security and certain "strategic-security" projects.
Tzur: That was nonsense.
Was the allusion to the nuclear project?
Tzur: I don't think that is correct. Eshkol did not neglect anything and he dealt with everything. Ben-Gurion couldn't bear him. He had an account to settle with him.
Did you not make public speeches about the neglect?
Tzur: No. There were other leading security people there, Dayan and Peres. They were better at mudslinging than I was. I was on excellent terms with Pinhas Sapir, who was the finance minister and the driving force in Mapai. A person who charged ahead, attacked, was very active and very aggressive. When I returned to security in 1967, he was my true parallel, because in the defense establishment I was responsible for everything other than the army, which in those days did not deal with the budget and did not run for government office. We would sit and sum up the defense budget. He compromised, I compromised. His whole problem was to avoid having Dayan attack him. He was ready to give me another 100 million Israel pounds and be done with it, on condition I would promise him that Dayan would not attack him. Once I promised, it was all over. Dayan did not intervene. My problem was sometimes to finish things off with the army, so they would accept it and not cause problems later. The chiefs of staff Bar-Lev and Dado [David Elazar] were very good friends of mine from the army. We never had to quarrel too much.
Was Peres angry because, when he was no longer in the Defense Ministry, the nuclear project, which until then he had managed personally, underwent a reform? Because Eshkol, his deputy Zevi Dinstein and Rabin rebuilt the structure of the relations between all the active bodies?
Tzur: I would not exaggerate with such sharp descriptions. In the first period, Ben-Gurion was prime minister. His intervention was in the Ben-Gurion style, namely making decisions of principle and not ongoing handling. When Eshkol came in, with his different character, he did become involved. On the nuclear issue there was no argument that it was the responsibility of the prime minister and not the defense minister, so that Eshkol got fully into that subject. Dinstein succeeded Peres, though he did not do what Peres had done. Because Rabin's status as chief of staff was strengthened in the Eshkol period, he had more to say, and he was asked more, and Eshkol consulted more. When I was in the Defense Ministry, the army did not handle nuclear issues at all. Sometimes I would consult. They were not completely in the picture. They were a bit sensitive about the subject, afraid that you were taking defense money and transferring it there, but there was no great activity by army people in that area.
In the sphere of research and development in general, we had to define who would decide what to develop. The development bodies, where the good engineers were, knew more or less what could be achieved. They pushed their projects. In regard to the development of munitions, in general and in principle, the army wanted to be allowed to define what it needed, but was not always capable of defining its needs fully. I accepted that the army should first of all define its needs. If there was no need, we should not spend money for no reason, but I made sure there was a body, the production and development council, of which they were all members.
There was a committee, the "nuclear committee," which was headed by the prime minister and actually consisted of public figures. It dealt with the more open matters and not with the closed ones. And there was another body, which I headed, which met every week and dealt with the ongoing matters and reported to the prime minister, who was always the supreme authority precisely in regard to the things we were going to do or should do, both for consulting and for receiving authorization. It was actually not the chief of staff. At the time, there was nothing. Peres had to conclude things with the French, get authorizations, ensure that it would start altogether. There was nothing, and Peres created it. After that, when he left, there was already more or less a format, and Dinstein came and it worked in a lot more orderly way, a lot more properly. All the research-and-development bodies were very much involved.
Ahead of the Six-Day War, the army operated on extremely low criteria. Very few combat days, very little fuel, ammunition, spare parts. They prepared stocks for three days of fighting.
When you started to work with Dayan, was there any sort of reference, at least a check, of the situation of the nuclear project? Did you get updated on this subject? Afterward, you dealt with it a great deal.
Tzur: No [it was not only afterward], I dealt with it then, too. I got into it immediately. I was naturally the one responsible, because it was a subject which Dinstein had dealt with before and I had to take responsibility from the first instant. I was in the picture. I was constantly on the committees that dealt with the subject, including before the war. In any event, what was there to check? We had to check what could be done. I immediately appointed some sort of committee that checked what could be done nevertheless, in colorful terms, to connect steel wires - that is only an image.
We are talking about a check. Not that anyone thought of doing something. Obviously there were thoughts, but the political echelon did not deal with it, and at the technical level, where I was, we [needed] to check our situation, whether it was possible to do something, that is all. After a day, it turned out that there was no reason to check, either. But on the first day we checked.
And the answer was?
Tzur: We will leave the answer.
After the war, Dayan dealt personally with the issue of the territories and the Arabs. He did not trust anyone, only himself, just as vice versa, when it came to the whole subject of the Defense Ministry he didn't want to do anything, point-blank. He said, "Don't bug me with all those subjects," by which he meant everything: budget, procurement, the military industries, research and development, foreign aid, the Atomic Energy Commission and all the rest of it. He dealt with the Arabs, he issued orders to fire - the army could not open fire without his authorization - but if he did not want to deal with something, he did not deal with it.
There were things which simply did not interest him. He did not want to deal with them. I could always go to see him, simply walk down the corridor, enter and sit with him. He always had time. He was not the type who has a meeting every five minutes. That was not his style of work. He had hours when he sat with himself, read intelligence material, read other material, from the Foreign Ministry, dealt with various matters, went digging. There was no "Moshe Dayan time" problem. You wanted to see him? You could enter immediately. I am told that nowadays, when you need to get to the prime minister or to the defense minister or to someone else, you can wait two weeks, because those guys are busy every half hour with fateful meetings. Dayan worked differently. He had time. By the way, Ben-Gurion was the same. Ben-Gurion had time to learn Latin, Greek, take an interest in the Bible. He went to sleep in the afternoon. Got home early.
With Dayan there was no chutzpah, it was character and habit, and also pampering. After all, he was pampered throughout his life by everyone. The only one he maybe had a little problem with was Ben-Gurion. He did not dare get smart-alecky with Ben-Gurion, though he always accepted authority. He said, "Golda decided," or "Eshkol decided." If they decided, he considered it a done decision and that was the end of it. He did not appeal and did not try tricks and did not go behind anyone's back. He would carry out exactly what was decided. In the Yom Kippur War, we went to check ourselves. Dayan talked about the destruction of the Third Commonwealth, but we actually did not believe that we had reached the destruction of the Third Commonwealth, we didn't seriously think that.
In June 1967, I appointed a committee of two, a senior scientist in the civil service and Colonel "Yatza" Yaakov, the head of the munitions department on the part of the defense establishment. We did not check the political side, as in my opinion it made no sense to do that.
If a proposal is attributed to Peres, I find that ridiculous, but if he says so - he certainly said it. It could not have been serious. On the first night of the war, after the attack by the air force, we already knew that Egypt was gone. There was nothing here and we could not have done much, either. The result was that we reached all kinds of conclusions and invested a great deal of money to create an option of that kind. Those stories - Yuval Ne'eman liked to talk about it, and "Yatza" talked about it - in my opinion the whole thing is very much exaggerated.
As assistant to the defense minister, when you dealt with it and organized the system, did you work in direct coordination with Eshkol?
Tzur: No, with Dayan. Not many ministers were responsible for that - [only] the prime minister and the defense minister. Dayan did not display deep interest; Eshkol displayed great interest and when Gold succeeded him, she too.Because it is their side, then we are on the other side, our side. If they had been responsible, if Allon had been [defense minister ] they would not have done anything different.
One fine day, Golda asked me to meet with Ya'akov Shimshon Shapira, the justice minister, whom she trusted and was close to her and was a strong figure. She tells me, "He doesn't know anything. Talk to him and take him with you to Dimona." I don't know if he knew anything or not, but let's say he didn't know. I took him to Dimona, and afterward, for years he would always ask me, "Why did you suddenly remember to take me to Dimona?" He too didn't know why. I told him, "Look, Golda asked. What's so complicated here." He really was a very close adviser to Golda. It seemed natural to me that she would want one of her closest advisers to understand what was being talked about. I remember that we went to Dimona together. He was always very hawkish.
There was always a debate, natural, but the word "struggle" is inappropriate. Today you can make concessions and get the whole world, who knows what, get peace, but it's not like that anymore. We are involved in the story of ourselves. Today you are also not sure if you need that. What do you know?
The Americans always pressed, but there was a formula and it was known that the Americans tacitly accepted it. Where did the problems crop up? When there were operative problems that had to be decided on. We did not have everything here. We had to get something from abroad. Where would we buy what was missing? Not every item is simple to buy on the market. You have to look beyond the hills of darkness, travel, negotiate, bargain, find a practical solution.
You need heavy water, which only the Norwegians have. So how do you get heavy water from the Norwegians? There were always discussions about the subject, which the reality of the situation made necessary, to find an operative formula that would make it possible to work. The discussions were held in an extremely small forum. There was knowledge, for example.
We saved many years by getting knowledge on one subject or another, but to obtain the knowledge - it's not that someone gives it to you. You had to obtain the knowledge, and look what happened to us when they handled another subject incautiously, with Pollard. The kind of thing that sometimes went to the top, because of the sensitivity, in case something happened, and there were a great many decisions here. You cannot imagine how many. The nuclear forum I headed acted by consensus. In other words - if there was no opposition I would go on; if there was opposition, there would be a discussion.
Was it a current report to the prime minister, actually, or to the defense minister?
Tzur: Quite current, and the prime minister would get a parallel report. For this purpose, I was the defense establishment. He [the prime minister] had a supposed pipeline of his own, the IAEC, which is part of the Prime Minister's Office. I was actually the active element there, but the director of the IAEC would of course meet with the prime minister himself - he too would report. There was not so much suspiciousness in the relations.
At the start of the project there were apparently harder arguments. There were also hard people. In my period there were arguments, but they were totally businesslike. Whatever big subject had to be decided on, every development body said they would do it best. You would gather all the bodies together and in the end have to make a decision. It was impossible for everyone to do things. Either this one or this one or that one. These were not the prime minister's decisions. There were very harsh arguments over many subjects, everyone wanted to get work, and they were very big jobs.
Things are arranged? There is a budget?
Tzur: Arranged and businesslike.
A joint committee of all those involved? Didn't that exist before?
Tzur: It did not exist before. When I arrived there was a committee - I think Dinstein created it - but it took sides too much. I was less of a side, I was more interested in the issue. His side was that the powers of the prime minister [Eshkol] should not be infringed. With me, that played no part at all. We established a committee of the IAEC, the Defense Ministry and the prime minister's secretary. I was the chairman of the committee and would raise the issues for discussion and sum up, and the secretary would report to the prime minister, so that I was exempt even from going to report, and it worked. Every week, maybe every two weeks.
We also had a council, a larger body, with public figures as well, which dealt with broader joint issues. I was the chairman there, too, and I would sum up and that was that.
There were visits by the Americans, who came to Dimona to check us out. There was total pressure. To pass the review was an extremely difficult problem, until the Americans themselves decided that they did not want to make a mockery of themselves and canceled the visits. It was a very acute yearly visit. It was agreed on, not a surprise visit, but when it took place he could go anywhere, ask to see everything.