How Shimon Peres Faced Down the Generals and Pacifists to Build Israel's Nuclear Program

Shimon Peres' crucial role in creating Israel's nuclear deterrent started when he was a civil servant in his 30s, tasked with a mission so sensitive it couldn't even be put in writing.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Shimon Peres and David Ben-Gurion, 1963.
Shimon Peres and David Ben-Gurion, 1963.Credit: Mickey Astel / IDF archive
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The Israel Atomic Energy Commission is not an organization known for its public relations skills. However, on Wednesday morning, a few hours after the announcement of Shimon Peres' death, it issued a rare statement. "Shimon Peres' activity has been part of the IAEC's activity since its foundation," it said. "Peres made a significant contribution to the Nuclear Research Center in the Negev and to the foundation of Israel's nuclear policy as a major pillar in ensuring Israel's national security."

These few bland sentences hold in them the foundation of Israel's "unclear" nuclear deterrent.

It is impossible to exaggerate the role Peres played in every facet of Israel's nuclear development. Veteran journalist Dan Margalit, who in his book "I Saw Them" revealed some of the details of Peres' involvement, said in a radio interview this week that when no geologists would sign off on the plans for the nuclear reactor near Dimona, Peres signed as the "geologist."

Read more on Shimon Peres: How Shimon Peres built Israel's nuclear program | In death, Peres got one last win | Peres pursued peace for sake of Israel's values, and Palestinians' dignity | Hawk to dove, pro-settlements to pro-peace: Shimon Peres was it all | The countless contradictions of the late and great Shimon Peres

Peres rarely spoke of his role in public. Earlier this year, in a moment of candor during an interview with Time magazine, he said that "Dimona helped us to achieve Oslo. Because many Arabs, out of suspicion, came to the conclusion that it’s very hard to destroy Israel because of it, because of their suspicion. Well, if the result is Dimona, I think I was right."

Forty years earlier, as a backbench Knesset member of the Rafi party of David Ben-Gurion loyalists, Peres, for the first time in his life in the opposition and shorn of power, made a similar speech. He defended his nuclear record, though few in the Israeli public understood what he was talking about: "I know that this suspicion [of Israel having a nuclear capability] is a powerful deterrent. Why should we dispel the suspicion? Why should we decipher it?"

Shimon Peres surveying a Nahal settlement, 1962.Credit: Mickey Astel / IDF archive

Professor Avner Cohen, the leading historian of Israel's nuclear project, has written in his book "The Last Taboo" that while the decision to establish Israeli nuclear capability in the early 1950s was made by Israel's founding prime minister, Ben-Gurion, it was never put into writing. Neither was a testimony of Ben-Gurion's clear intentions that the capability would serve scientific, military or energy purposes. Peres, the director-general of the Defense Ministry, was tasked with interpreting Ben-Gurion's wishes and setting them into motion.

As a young civil servant in his early thirties, sent out by Ben-Gurion to build a nuclear program, Peres was a convenient target for criticism. He had to overcome the largely pacifist academic community, the majority of whom were against the notion of Israel having a nuclear weapon. He had to face down most of the Israel Defense Force's generals who feared that an expensive nuclear program would eat up scarce budgets needed for building a conventional army. They distrusted Peres, the civilian, anyway.

The professors rebelled against Peres. In 1957, when they felt that their academic credentials were being undermined for other purposes, most of the members of the IAEC, with the exception of the chairman Professor Ernst David Bergmann, who was also Ben-Gurion's scientific advisor, resigned. In Jerusalem, a group led by philosopher Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz founded a disarmament committee and predicted a nuclear holocaust, after which only "Shimon's ruins" would be left of Israel.

Together with Bergmann, Peres overcame the professors. He recruited young physicists to work at the research centers at Dimona and Soreq rather than the veteran Weizmann Institute scientists who refused to cooperate. He bypassed the generals' objections by obtaining a large portion of the funds for the nuclear project from outside the defense budget, in the shape of secret donations from Jewish philanthropists, eager to play their part in ensuring the survival of the nascent Jewish state.

One of Peres' key decisions was not to take the long and expensive route by developing an Israeli-designed nuclear reactor. Instead, he made a daring decision to take advantage of a short-lived historical opportunity. With the backing, hesitant at the outset, of IDF Chief-of-Staff Moshe Dayan, he included a large nuclear reactor in the list of requests made by Israel to the French government on the eve of the 1956 Suez campaign. Peres navigated the turbulent political establishment of the Fourth Republic, where power was constantly changing hands until Charles de Gaulle was called in to take over. De Gaulle would prove to be much less friendly than the socialists with whom the first nuclear deals were signed, but by then the foundation had been laid. While the professors were still drinking tea and arguing and American and British intelligence officers were trying to work out the purpose of the suspicious "textile plant" being built in the Negev, work underground was already at an advanced stage.

As Ben-Gurion’s power waned from the late 1950s onwards, so did Peres’ influence. In the early 1960s, he still had the authority to make two major decisions. He directed the development and the public test launch of the Shavit research missile and ordered a batch of 25 ballistic missiles from the French aerospace industries, which were already selling Israel hundreds of military aircraft. According to foreign reports, these would serve as the base for developing the Israeli-made Jericho missiles, capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

Shimon Peres at the Negev Nuclear Research Center, 2014.Credit: IAEC

In 1963, during a visit to Washington as deputy defense minister to sign the first arms deal with the U.S. for Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, Peres also met with President John F. Kennedy, who was staunchly opposed to Israel having nuclear weapons. That was when Peres came up with the carefully worded commitment that “Israel will not be the first to introduce atomic weapons to the region,” the basis of Israel’s policy of “nuclear ambiguity” to this day.

On the eve of the Six Day War in 1967, when he was still out of government, Peres wrote in his memoirs that “of my contribution in that dramatic period, I cannot write openly for reasons of state security. After Dayan was appointed defense minister, I made a certain suggestion to him.” This suggestion, Peres believed, “would deter the Arabs and prevented war.” Most researchers and historians have surmised that Peres suggested Israel carry out a nuclear test, which would convince the Egyptians and the Syrians to demobilize the troops massing on Israel’s borders. This has never been confirmed, but Peres’ biographer and long-time confidant, Michael Bar-Zohar, hints that was the case in his book.

That was nowhere near the end of Peres’ nuclear involvement, but very little of what has happened after 1967 has even been publicly confirmed. As defense minister in Yitzhak Rabin’s government, he received Rabin’s authorization to carry out “advanced development,” according to Professor Efraim Inbar’s book on Rabin’s security policy. According to foreign sources, those were the years during which Israel and South Africa cooperated closely on nuclear affairs, leading up to a suspected joint nuclear test over the Indian Ocean in September 1979. By this point, however, Likud was in power and Peres was once again in opposition.

One of Peres’ last decisions as prime minister before handing over the reins to successorYitzhak Shamir in October 1986, was to order Mossad abduct Mordechai Vanunu. The technician from the Dimona reactor had revealed Israel’s nuclear secrets to the Sunday Times.

The order called for Vanunu to be brought to trial in Israel. Nuclear ambiguity was to be preserved at all costs.

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