The Debate That Gave Birth to Israel's Nuclear Ambiguity Revealed

Declassified protocols of secret meeting 56 years ago show how Israel concealed the Dimona nuclear reactor ■ Newspaper editors were told to refrain from mentioning nuclear research or power, and even censor opinion pieces on the matter

File photo: General view of the Israeli nuclear facility in the Negev Desert outside Dimona, August 6, 2000.
Jim Hollander/Reuters

At the beginning of a secret meeting held on July 9, 1963 in Jerusalem, the main speaker apologized to his guests. “I must first of all apologize and ask to be forgiven for the delay,” said Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. He then immediately turned to the subject for which he had gathered the forum.

“The purpose I invited you to meet with me – besides that the matter itself is agreeable and important – is to speak about a single matter,” said Eshkol.

Those present in the room were senior journalists, members of the “editors committee,” an informal forum that met from time to time with the prime minister, ministers and senior government officials to receive classified – and not for publication – information. Eshkol quoted David Ben-Gurion, whom he had replaced only two weeks earlier: “It is possible to speak about things with the newspaper editors and if you ask for the things not to be reported, they can be trusted.”

After that he tackled the matter for which he gathered the group: Publication of articles on the nuclear reactor in Dimona – which was inaugurated only a short time before – in violation of the previous agreement on the matter. “In the last two or three weeks, on those things that according to what is acceptable it was required not to talk about in the press – the talking began,” said Eshkol. “And I mean what we call ‘the science and research in Dimona.’”

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The minutes of this meeting, which were originally classified as “Secret” and kept in the Defense Ministry, were recently scanned and uploaded to the Israel State Archive website. Fifty-six years after they were written, someone decided that the time had come to declassify the material and the document was no longer sensitive. But on Thursday night, the document, which was marked as "not declassified," was pulled from the archive's website and is no longer available for view. Examining the document gives us a rare and fascinating glimpse into the Israeli policy of deliberate “ambiguity” on nuclear matters, which continues to this day, on the activities of the military censor and the complex relations between the government and the press in those days.

The minutes of the meeting show that other meetings preceded this one, in which the newspaper editors were brought up-to-date on nuclear matters. Eshkol reminded those present that in the past they had been told secrets with the understanding and agreement that while they knew these things, they were not to be written or spoken about. But later the newspaper editors had acted without any restraint and Eshkol told them he was “very worried.”

Rebuking editors

Eshkol rebuked the editors for publishing reports and articles that exposed state secrets. “There are sections in the press … that you need to be blind or deaf and lacking understanding, for those who read it not to know that Israel is busy with atomic energy not for the purpose of peace but for the military and defense,” said Eshkol. “One can assume that the Arabs are reading this, and the Americans and the French,” he added. “The American embassy immediately copies such an article and it goes everywhere it shouldn’t go.”

“The time is nearing when there will be a need for negotiation with countries and with nations on this matter,” added Eshkol. “Because of this, it has become more critical and severe and practical.” He told the forum that this is why he was asking them explicitly: “The matter of Dimona, the matter of atomic research – don’t mix it with any other matters.”

File photo: Prime Minister Levi Eshkol speaks after annual luncheon at the Tel Aviv Press Club, March 31, 1967.
Fritz Cohen/GPO

The newspaper editors asked questions, asked for explanations and voiced reservations. Arye Dissenchik, the editor of Maariv, noted that in the past they had been requested that there not be “noise all the time around this matter, and not to keep it in the picture.”

Jacob Amit, the editor of Al Hamishmar, tried to calm the fears of the new prime minister. “This body can be trusted. … We are happy about the trust we have earned, and I am certain that we will not disappoint in the future either,” he said.

“One thing is certainly clear: The matter is completely internal and secret, and it was obvious to all of us that this is not a matter for discussions and writing … It was clear to all of us that what they are doing in Dimona is not a matter for writing openly,” added Amit.

He asked: “And is it not clear to all of us that this is not the way we need to write, if we assume the government wants to prepare nuclear weapons for deterrence?” He answered his own question: “I propose we accept now too … that we are all interested that these things will not be written about. Everything does not need to be written about in the press. … I propose we say here to the prime minister that we have accepted upon ourselves this self-restraint, … that on this matter we sometimes place the yoke of the censor on ourselves.”

Amit’s colleague Isaac (Izik) Remba, the editor of Herut, had a similar opinion. “Everything that happens from the aspect of security, we are all interested in not causing damage to the country. … I propose to accept this formulation – every problem of the atomic activity and Dimona, we don’t need to publish about it,” said Remba.

Schocken the outlier

Gershom Schocken of Haaretz did not agree with this far-reaching approach and warned against attempts to censor opinion pieces related to the nuclear issue. “The press is free to express opinions. As far as I recall, we have never been asked not express opinions on this matter,” said Schocken. “If the censor thinks that talking about certain types of weapons could well endanger the country’s security, the censor in the past has also used its authority and I assume it will do so in the future.”

Eshkol attacked Schocken’s approach. “The boundaries are not so blurred. If within this disagreement one says, ‘We aren’t doing so,’ and another says, ‘You are making all the preparations to make an atomic bomb, and this is during an argument, to prove that it is not necessary and harms Israel – this is expressing an opinion, but it says we are going and making an atomic bomb. Is the boundary so unclear?” said Eshkol.

The premier even made a veiled threat: “Nonetheless, I support and ask that the agreement be as was agreed to, … that on this matter there is no question of expressing opinions. It is possible to find a lot of weaknesses and ways to criticize the government or to express opinions about the government, but to actually bring this as an example – you are opening a dangerous front.”

Shimon Peres, who was deputy defense minister and responsible for establishing Israel’s nuclear program, participated in the meeting. He too disagreed with Schocken’s urging that publication of opinion pieces on the nuclear issue be allowed. “But if you write that it is forbidden to build an atomic bomb and for that we need to impose supervision on Dimona – is that expressing an opinion or presenting a news item? It’s clear that it reveals something,” said Peres.

File photo: Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres attend a meeting with David Ben-Gurion at the Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, June 28, 1963.
Fritz Cohen/GPO

Peres spoke out in public about the ambiguity surrounding Israel’s nuclear plans later on. “The reactor, there is no doubt it has given Israel a new dimension. This is the biggest compensation for the smallness of [Israel]. Here the technology compensated for territory, geography,” he was quoted as saying in his 2003 Hebrew biography “Al P’nei Haim Rabim.”

Peres at bat

“That the reactor is all the time in a mysterious, murky state is okay because it is clear enough to be used as a deterrent for enemies, and murky enough so as not to provoke the anger of the world. This has given Israel self-confidence. Everyone has felt that the option to destroy us is gone,” he added.

In the meeting with the journalists in 1963, he presented one of the problematic articles – as far as he was concerned – to the editors, which had been published at the time on the matter. “According to this article, it is clear we are making nuclear weapons,” Peres rebuked them. At the meeting, he asked the newspaper editors “not to publish about France’s help … and the research material,” referring to the fact that the reactor had come from France and that French engineers aided Israel in building it.

Eshkol told the participants that the military censor was the one who asked him to gather the forum. “My address is the censor. He told me, ‘Speak with the editors, maybe it is worth talking about another time.’” Eshkol admitted that he was not happy to use the censor in a sweeping way, and said: “I know that we are not so enthusiastic for there to be fear of the censor in the land of the newspapers.” But he still concluded: “This is a matter of oversight.”

Eshkol asked to reach a “patriotic agreement of responsible people” with the editors. He explained: “This is something whose harm is enormous. … The matter is serious, grave and could well cause damage.” He tried appealing to the Zionist hearts of the editors, saying: “It is unimaginable that on this matter someone will want to harm or burden or make things difficult. … I ask you to lend me a hand on this matter,” said Eshkol.

He summed up the meeting: “I am asking the newspaper editors to be responsible for their papers not writing about the subject of atomic research and on the matter of atomic power, in a way that it will be possible to understand that Israel is working on this matter and using it for military power.”