Benjamin Vered, originally Blumberg, who died on Wednesday at 95, held the most sensitive security positions in Israel for three decades. Some of the operations he orchestrated – at times with the help of producer Arnon Milchan – resembled scenes from a Hollywood thriller.
In 1968, according to foreign media, Benjamin Blumberg ran a global operation to smuggle “yellow cake” (natural uranium) to the nuclear reactor in Dimona. The “cake,” originating in the Congo, was loaded in Antwerp on a ship owned by a Mossad-owned straw company and moved at sea to an Israel-bound Zim ship. At the same time, Blumberg somehow made sure American inspectors, who were sent to the reactor, didn’t notice what was going on there behind the scenes.
“It was an unusual story. A complete success,” he said in a rare television interview broadcast by Raviv Drucker’s program The Captains. Most of the interview did not survive the censor’s scissors.
For decades Blumberg was completely unknown, and the public didn’t know his name or see his face. And for good reason. Between the 50s and the 80s, Blumberg held some of the country’s most classified posts that dealt with building Israel’s military, scientific and technological might.
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He was the Defense Ministry’s security officer in charge of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, the nuclear reactors in Dimona and Nahal Sorek, the Institute for Biological Research at Ness Ziona and head of a Shin Bet department and the Lakam intelligence agency, which became the acquisition branch for most of Israel’s defense industries.
In 2005 part of the mystery surrounding him was dispelled, when journalist Yossi Melman wrote a large profile story on him in Haaretz, entitled “Discrete”
In his case, the phrase “took many secrets to the grave with him” is no cliché.
“All his life Blumberg was a man of shadows. His flinching from the media bordered almost on loathing. His might was in his silence,” Melman wrote about him.
Blumberg was born in 1923 in Mikveh Israel. His maternal grandfather was one of the founders of the agricultural school. His father was the caretaker. One of his teachers was David Leibowitz, inventor of the Davidka mortar. As a boy he joined the Haganah. At 15 he left home and moved in with Giora Zaid, son of the mythological Alexander Zaid, a founder of the Jewish defense organizations Hashomer and Bar Giora, at Sheik Abreik. “Zaid introduced me to the Druze in the area. Thanks to them I learned Arabic,” he said.
In the War of Independence he commanded the security of the potash factory in Kalya, on the Dead Sea shores. Later he was one of the first to join the Shin Bet, when the service was a unit in the IDF. At the end of the ‘50s, when the nuclear research center in Dimona was first being built, he was appointed by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Defense Ministry director general Shimon Peres as the reactor’s security officer.
“I wasn’t keen, but there was no choice. What Ben-Gurion wants – you do. You could not say no to Ben-Gurion,” Blumberg told Drucker in an interview.
“I knew him in the defense ministry, he was discrete and knew how to keep a secret, so I promoted him…I believed in him and trusted him and he didn’t disappoint me, carrying out his job in an extraordinary way,” Peres said of him later.
Blumberg later became the security director of the entire defense establishment, known by the acronym of malmab. “I recruited defense officers and issued regulations. Before that there was one big confusion, it wasn’t simple. I had to persuade the directors of the military industries that they need security,” he said in an interview to Sara Leibowitz-Dar, published in Maariv in 2012.
Some of Blumberg’s duties were carried out as part of a covert unit later called the Bureau for Scientific Relations (Lakam). In their book Spies Against Armageddon (2012), Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv wrote that the unit was so secret, it was even hidden from then Mossad head Isser Harel.
Melman wrote that throughout the ‘60s Blumberg personally accompanied the important deliveries of equipment and materials to and from the reactor. He was also the top professional authority on examining staff recruited to the reactor.
The unit Blumberg set up and headed expanded beyond Israel’s borders. “I set up a special unit in Germany. A whole office with a big system,” he told Drucker. Under his orchestration, he had “scientific attaches” sent to Israeli embassies in Europe and North Africa. These engineers, physicists and chemists, were assigned to covertly monitor scientific and technological developments in the countries they were posted in.
The operations Blumberg was involved in are hair-raising. In 1961, after Israel was forced to agree to visits by American inspectors to Dimona, Blumberg made sure to “see to it that the inspectors don’t find out what really happened,” as Foreign Minister Abba Eban explained later, according to a foreign source.
Over the years partial information was published about the operations Blumberg took part in. Some reports said that in 1968 Lakam people and the Mossad moved 200 tons of natural uranium from a freight ship that sailed from Belgium under a Liberian flag to an Israeli ship. Lakam under Blumberg was also involved in bypassing the arms embargo France had imposed on Israel following the Six Day War. At his direction, Lakam smuggled the Cherbourg boats, held in France, and the production plans of the Mirage fighter jets, to Israel.
Milchan was among the individuals who aided Blumberg. In the ‘60s Milchan, then less than 30, operated dozens of straw companies in numerous countries as a cover for the Lakam’s activity. In an interview to Fact (Uvda) with Ilana Dayan in 2013 Milchan said Blumberg had tasked him with various missions, some of which had still not yet been revealed.
For example, when the Dimona reactor engineers needed production plans of secret facilities, Milchan went to the German plant that produced them and recruited the engineer who had access to the safe.
Later, in 1979, according to foreign media, Israel cooperated with South Africa in a nuclear experiment in the Atlantic Ocean. In return, it was reported, Israel assisted the apartheid regime in whitewashing its image by using Milchan’s connections in the media and movies. “Let’s help those who can help us,” Blumberg told Milchan.
Another mission Milchan received from Blumberg eventually led to closing Lakam down. Milchan set up a company in California that dealt with smuggling to Israel equipment for assembling nuclear bombs. The affair exploded following an FBI investigation, but Milchan escaped unscathed. Another partner Milchan recruited for the Lakam was businessman Eliyahu Saharov, who, according to Melman, led daring operations to obtain materials for Israel’s nuclear program.
“Blumberg attended all those junctures of decisions that shaped Israel’s strategy and defense view,” Melman wrote about him in Haaretz. “Israel’s nuclear policy shapers, headed by prime minister and defense minister Ben-Gurion, his assistant and Defense Ministry director general Shimon Peres and a handful of scientists who worked with them, needed a reliable, devoted, loyal, secret-keeping operative. So they gave him even more power than they perhaps intended one man to have.”
“His contribution to the state’s security is invaluable, he carried out magnificent covert work,” Peres once said about him.
In 1981 Blumberg was fired by then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. Later he was one of the founders of the electronics plant Optomic Technologies.
Blumberg will be buried today at Kibbutz Magal. He is survived by two children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.