Secret Handwritten Memos Reveal How Israel's Nuclear Program Came to Be

A treasure trove of memos written by top Israeli politicians in the 1960s and onward reveals disputes over the nuclear 'project,' its huge cost and the decision to adopt a policy of ambiguity

The Dimona reactor.
Thomas Coex/AFP

A few years ago, shortly after I published my book “The Struggle for the Bomb” (Hebrew), about Israel’s nuclear history, I was invited to give a talk before an academic audience. Someone at the venue handed me a thick envelope and requested explicitly that I not open it until I got home. Examining its contents later that day, I discovered some 100 different documents, including slips of paper, memoranda, drafts and summations of the most intimate meetings and events relating to Israel’s nuclear history.

The vast majority of the documents were original. Many of them were written by Israel Galili, a minister without portfolio and close adviser to two prime ministers, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. Others were penned by Yigal Allon, Shimon Peres, Moshe Dayan and Abba Eban, and by Eshkol himself. Many of the items refer to highly confidential meetings that took place in 1962-1963, where the future of the nuclear project, and its impact on Israel’s neighbors, especially Egypt, were discussed. No official minutes were taken at these meetings, and the participants were forbidden to sum them up in writing.

The questions Galili posed to his colleagues at these meetings continue to occupy many historians around the world. Some of those questions – concerning the date on which the Dimona reactor would become operational; whether its activation could be concealed from foreign inspectors; how much money had already been invested in the project and how much more would be needed – can be answered now, thanks to this trove of information.

The start of work on the nuclear reactor, at the end of 1958, was kept secret from the Knesset and the government. The obvious need to keep the undertaking secret, and the fact that part of its budget came from foreign sources, made it possible to bypass temporarily any disagreements over the necessity for a nuclear program and the discussion of its potential significance. But when the reactor’s existence became public knowledge, in December 1960 – after the fact of its construction was leaked to the international media by foreign government sources – Israel’s political echelons began to discuss its future seriously.

The implications of the issues surrounding the nuclear project were critical. To begin with, its continued development demanded vast monetary resources, certainly for a country still taking its first steps. Second, any further development of the facility would have ramifications vis-a-vis Israel’s integration into the Cold War web of international diplomatic relations. And third, pursuit of the project was liable to induce neighboring countries, notably Egypt, to develop independent nuclear programs of their own.

Arnan (“Sini”) Azaryahu, the right-hand man of Galili and military leader Yigal Allon, said years later that one of the major decisions made in these meetings was in retrospect the most important in the history of Zionism. He was referring to the group’s decision not to accept the approach of Peres and Dayan – who urged that the absolute majority of the defense budget be diverted to the Dimona reactor and that its potential be made a public fact – but to adopt, instead, a policy of nuclear “ambiguity.”

A note written to Galili by Eban, mentioning that the entire nuclear project cost $340 million.

The blatant advantage of such a policy is still clear today: It reduced the motivation of neighboring countries to embark on the nuclear path and prevented Israel from having to take the steps then common for a nuclear state: a public declaration of its nuclear capability, nuclear tests and making the weapon operational. Such moves would also have openly subverted the international efforts that were being led by the United States against nuclear proliferation.

Three times the cost

The meetings were comprehensive and covered a range of issues related to the topic. Galili, for example, was very disturbed by the “undermining of our moral status” that nuclear development implied. He was also deeply concerned about the significance that such development would have for Egypt, and declared that “the enterprise” was liable to compel President Gamal Abdel Nasser to launch a preventive war against a “justified target.” In Galili’s view, Nasser would also be spurred to develop Egypt’s own nuclear project.

For reasons of censorship, only a small portion of the subjects that came up in the notes can be addressed here, among them the cost of building the reactor. Many estimates have been published over the years about the project’s total cost, virtually all of them based on foreign sources. At the same time, Galili’s notes suggest that these assessments were low. At a meeting held in April 1962, Shimon Peres said that, as of that date, 158 million Israel pounds had been spent on the reactor (about $53 million, according to the exchange rate at the time). In fact, the costs were far higher, and they went on climbing. Two years later, in mid-1964, Yigal Allon noted that in cabinet discussions it was stated that the Dimona reactor would cost about $60 million, but in his opinion “it is already three times that.”

It’s even possible that the reactor’s cost was almost twice the figure of $180 million. In a note to Galili, date unknown, Abba Eban, the deputy prime minister (a position he held from 1963 to 1966), wrote, “If it were known in advance that it would cost $340 million – would we have voted for Dimona?” (By comparison, the cost of building the national water carrier, generally referred to as the largest project executed in Israel during that period, was about $140 million.)

We understand from a number of testimonies that Ben-Gurion held off from resigning from the government, which he did in June 1963, until after the reactor had become operational. “The enterprise is undergoing a trial run,” Galili confirmed shortly afterward.

Israel Galili. Disturbed by the “undermining of our moral status” that nuclear development implied.
Fritz Cohen / GPO

Shortly after Ben-Gurion’s departure, and Eshkol’s appointment as prime minister, a discussion was held on the future of the project and on Israeli-U.S. relations. Israel’s operative assumption, notes Golda Meir, at the time the foreign minister, is that the Americans know what is going on in “the enterprise.” She thought that a public struggle should be launched in defense of Israel’s right to undertake the nuclear project, and American Jewry mobilized to that end. “Our situation will be stronger when the struggle becomes public,” she stated, and urged a “switch to offense instead of defense.”

Eshkol, for his part, recommended continuing to abide by the policy whereby Israel would not admit to the goal of the project, but “also not deny.” In any event, he demanded “not to bargain [with Washington] before the matter is closed” (that is, nuclear capacity achieved). Some of the notes he wrote use code names: “Natar” is France, “Pazit” is Golda Meir. In one of the meetings, a person called “Nusa” says that Israel must “stop the work” on the reactor and “continue with laboratory work” while continuing to oppose a visit to Dimona by the Americans.

In the initial stages of the project, Israel brought heavy pressure to bear on de Gaulle’s France to drop its (weak) insistence that the nuclear project be placed under international supervision. The U.S. administration – mainly under Kennedy, to a lesser degree under Johnson and Nixon – also pressured Jerusalem on the same subject. In fact, some eight visits were made to the Dimona reactor by U.S. inspectors during the 1960s, generating a great political dispute within Israel.

A few years later, Peres wrote Galili that “in order to overcome the supervision” that the Americans were demanding, “cooperation by both sides is needed.” Cooperation was in fact achieved with the French, and later with the Americans as well. The Americans, for their part, as Dayan wrote in response to a question from Galili at the time, emphasized “concern about Israel’s isolation” and noted “that it is very important that we hurry and sign the treaty” against nuclear proliferation.

However, the crucial aspect of the project that was kept secret from the Israeli public in those years was not the visits in Dimona (which were frequently reported in the foreign press) or U.S. pressure on Israel. It was the fact that the future of the facility and its purpose were subjects of fierce dispute in the political realm in Israel. Whereas after 1962 there was unofficial agreement that Israeli would continue to build the reactor, in one of his notes Galili mentioned a highly important fact: “There is no decision by the government of Israel to manufacture atomic weapons.”

In other words, the logical interpretation is that in accordance with the decision made in 1962, Israel continued in those years to prepare a nuclear option in case one of its neighbors should embark on the nuclear path, but it did not complete the entire nuclear cycle. Following the series of meetings in the 1960s mentioned here, Galili wrote that, “No one here said to stop” the development.

A note written by Yigal Allon, saying that Israel has reached an agreement with the U.S. whereby the former would not cross the nuclear threshold publicly.

The 1962 decision, on continued construction of the reactor and the adoption of the policy of ambiguity, has remained intact to this day, but the political disagreement has also gone on for years.

“We are doing the best we can to ensure public supervision by the Knesset over the activity in this sphere,” Galili wrote in one of his notes. Peres and Dayan were opposed. “Golda wants to establish a ministerial committee for ‘atomic energy,’” Allon wrote Galili, and she “sees no alternative to coopting Shimon Peres.” Allon, for his part, was ready to forgo his place on the panel, just to ensure that Peres would not become a member.

In 1969, it was decided to stop the American visits to Dimona. Since then, as far as is known, the Americans have not been to the reactor. The cessation of the visits was part of a secret agreement of understandings – according to foreign reports – between President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Meir, whereby Israel would not cross the nuclear threshold publicly. The importance of that agreement is clear from a note that Yigal Allon wrote: “I am constantly using a phrase agreed with [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger – that Israel is not a nuclear state.” Allon wrote that the bilateral agreement was based on the concept that “a nuclear state is a state that has exploded a bomb or a device.” Israel has never conducted a public test, and therefore the agreement, if it actually exists, is still valid and still approved by the U.S. president every few years.

Final option

One of the most intriguing events in Israel’s history was an encounter, early in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, focused on the nuclear issue. The subject, which comes up in the envelope, has been widely addressed during the past few decades, notably in 2013, when nuclear researcher Avner Cohen published, in the United States, the testimony of Arnan Azaryahu about the episode. The journalist Ronen Bergman wrote at the time, “This is the first time that the testimony of a witness from the inner circle of the decision makers has been made available.” Azaryahu was not present at the meeting, but heard about the proceedings from Galili immediately afterward.

At 3 P.M., on October 8, 1973, a panicked Defense Minister Dayan arrived at the Kirya – defense establishment headquarters – in Tel Aviv and told Prime Minister Meir that it might be necessary to undertake preparations should be made ahead of activation of the final option. Dayan was apparently testing the waters with Meir. Also in the room were Galili, who turned pale, and wondered whether Dayan had lost his mind. But Dayan was insistent, arguing that it was necessary to prepare for the possibility of activation. Before the meeting, he told Chief of Staff David Elazar and air force commander Mordechai Hod that the air force should be placed on alert. Elazar was opposed. The next day, another meeting was held, this time with the participation of Shalhevet Freier, director general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, who shared Dayan’s impulse. Meir made it clear to him that nothing would go ahead without her authorization. Israel Lior, her military secretary, told Dayan and Freier that they could forget about their ideas.

Much has been written about the nuclear aspects of the Yom Kippur War, and many have addressed the question of whether actual preparations were made ahead of a nuclear test or signal. The description of the events presented here suggests that no concrete preparations were made, except – apparently – initial preparations in the event of a different decision being made later by the political echelon.

In the shadows

The history of the Israeli nuclear project is important not only because of its bearing on the country’s past, but because of its influence on the present and the future. Despite the firm stance to the contrary of the defense establishment (and others), it is possible to hold a serious and responsible discussion about historical facts without “denting” the policy of ambiguity.

Foreign intelligence agencies do not base their evaluations on historical documentation that is 50-plus years old. Whereas a lively discussion on the significance of nuclear development has been held throughout the world for years, in Israel there is only silence. This is not a minor issue, as the nuclear project raises weighty questions: Who makes the decisions? Who is supervising the project? What is its effect on the foreign relations of the nuclear state? What is its cost? What effect does it have on security conceptions? And so on.

A public that is willing to remain in the shadows where its state’s nuclear policy is concerned, should not be surprised that decades later after its critical origins, a criminal episode is revealed dealing with the decision-making processes on the acquisition of submarines that, according to foreign sources, are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.