Israel And The Bombby Avner Cohen, Avner Cihen
Until now, there has been no detailed account of Israel's nuclear history. Previous treatments of the subject relied heavily on rumors, leaks, and journalistic speculations. But with Israel and the Bomb, Avner Cohen has forged an interpretive political history that draws on thousands of American and Israeli government documentsmost of them recently/i>
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Until now, there has been no detailed account of Israel's nuclear history. Previous treatments of the subject relied heavily on rumors, leaks, and journalistic speculations. But with Israel and the Bomb, Avner Cohen has forged an interpretive political history that draws on thousands of American and Israeli government documentsmost of them recently declassified and never before citedand more than one hundred interviews with key individuals who played important roles in this story. Cohen reveals that Israel crossed the nuclear weapons threshold on the eve of the 1967 Six-Day War, yet it remains ambiguous about its nuclear capability to this day. What made this posture of "opacity" possible, and how did it evolve?
Cohen focuses on a two-decade period from about 1950 until 1970, during which David Ben-Gurion's vision of making Israel a nuclear-weapon state was realized. He weaves together the story of the formative years of Israel's nuclear program, from the founding of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission in 1952, to the alliance with France that gave Israel the sophisticated technology it needed, to the failure of American intelligence to identify the Dimona Project for what it was, to the negotiations between President Nixon and Prime Minister Meir that led to the current policy of secrecy. Cohen also analyzes the complex reasons Israel concealed its nuclear programfrom concerns over Arab reaction and the negative effect of the debate at home to consideration of America's commitment to nonproliferation.
Israel and the Bomb highlights the key questions and the many potent issues surrounding Israel's nuclear history. This book will be a critical resource for students of nuclear proliferation, Middle East politics, Israeli history, and American-Israeli relations, as well as a revelation for general readers.
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MEN AND ETHOS
The idea that Israel should acquire a nuclear-weapon capability is as old as the state itself. In the early days it took more than a little chuzpa to believe that tiny Israel could launch a nuclear program, but for a state born out of the Holocaust and surrounded by the hostile Arab world, not to do so would have been irresponsible. David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, entertained the vision early on, but until the mid-1950s it was no more than a hope for the future. In 1955-58, however, following his return to power and the establishment of special relations with France, sufficient resources became available to initiate a national nuclear project.
Three men set the nuclear project in motion: the nation's political leader, his chief scientist, and his chief executive officer. Ben Gurion believed that Israeli scientists could provide the ultimate answer to Israel's security problem. Ernst David Bergmann, an organic chemist, tutored Ben Gurion in nuclear matters for many years. Shimon Peres exploited the international opportunity to make the dream into a reality. Without these men the Israeli program would likely not have been launched.
DAVID BEN GURION
David Ben Gurion arrived in Palestine in 1906 as a twenty-year-old pioneer from Plonsk, Poland, committed to socialist Zionism. Four decades later, on 15 May 1948, he declared the creation of the State of Israel and became its first prime minister. He served as prime minister for fourteen years, longer than any other Israeli prime minister.
From 1935 until 1948, as chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive, the governing body of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine), he led the campaign which ended in the creation of Israel. The backdrop for his tireless campaign was the rise of Nazism, the Second World War, and the Holocaust.
Israel's nuclear project was conceived in the shadow of the Holocaust, and the lessons of the Holocaust provided the justification and motivation for the project. Without the Holocaust we cannot understand either the depth of Ben Gurion's commitment to acquiring nuclear weapons or his inhibitions about nuclear-weapon policy. Over the years Ben Gurion's fears and anxieties became national policy.
"The story of the Yishuv leaders during the Holocaust was essentially one of helplessness," writes Tom Segev. The determination not to be helpless again, a commitment to the idea that Jews should control their own fate, characterized Ben Gurion's determined campaign for Jewish statehood after the Second World War. It also inspired his pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Imbued with the lessons of the Holocaust, Ben Gurion was consumed by fears for Israel's security. His preoccupation with security stemmed from his understanding of the geopolitical realities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As the War of Independence concluded in 1949 with an impressive Israeli victory, Ben Gurion became convinced that the cessation of hostilities would not lead to a lasting peace, but would be only a temporary pause before the next round of Arab-Israeli military conflict. Ben Gurion saw Arab hostility toward Israel as deep and long-lasting. In his view, peace could not come until the Arabs reconciled themselves to the losses of the 1948 war and until they became convinced that the defeat of 1948 was not merely a reversible error caused by the ineptitude and division of their corrupt leadership. To have peace with Israel required that they accept their losses as final. Ben Gurion's pessimism about the inevitability of the next round influenced Israel's foreign and defense policy for years.
Ben Gurion's worldview and his decisive governing style shaped his critical role in initiating Israel's nuclear program. Ben Gurion was fascinated by twentieth-century science and technology and energetically promoted scientific research in Israel. Scientific achievements were, for him, the hallmarks of the Zionist state, a secular manifestation of the idea of Israel as the "chosen people." "We are inferior to other peoples in our numbers, dispersion, and the characteristics of our political life," he remarked, "but no other people is superior to us in its intellectual prowess. Until now we have disseminated our intellectual capital in foreign lands, and helped many nations in the great scientific achievements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ... There is no reason why the genius of science would not blossom and flourish in his native land."
Ben Gurion believed that science and technology had two roles in the realization of Zionism: to advance the State of Israel spiritually and materially, and to provide for a better defense against its external enemies. As Peres would put it, "Ben Gurion believed that Science could compensate us for what Nature has denied us." Ben Gurion's romantic, even mystical, faith in science and technology sustained his utopian vision of a blossoming Negev desert and the use of nuclear power to desalinate sea water.
Since the late 1940s Ben Gurion had a special fascination with nuclear energy. In a pamphlet Ben Gurion wrote in November 1948 for distribution among new recruits to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), he wrote, "We are living in an age of scientific revolutions, an era that discloses the atom, its miraculous composition and the tremendous power hidden in it." This theme is repeated in speeches, diary notes, and conversations in which Ben Gurion referred to the atomic revolution as an unprecedented transformation of the history of civilization.
Ben Gurion insisted from the beginning that Israel must base its security on science and technology, the only areas where it could have a significant advantage over its more numerous Arab enemies. In mid-1947, as chairman of the Jewish Agency, the governing body of the Jewish community in Palestine, Ben Gurion set the priority of scientific defense research. He created a scientific department at the headquarters of the Haganah, the semi-official Jewish defense organization, and allocated it an annual budget of 10,000 mandatory pounds. This budget was so large that the heads of the department did not know at first what to do with it. In March 1948 the General Staff of Haganah (soon to become the Israel Defense Force, or IDF) formally recognized the scientific department as a staff unit in the operations branch. The new department was responsible for coordinating and assigning tasks to the newly created Ha'il Mada (Science Corps, known by the Hebrew acronym HEMED). The first commanding officer of HEMED, Shlomo Gur, recalls that HEMED was Ben-Gurion's favorite military organization.
Ben Gurion had no qualms about Israel's need for weapons of mass destruction. In an April 1948 letter to one of his operatives in Europe, Ben Gurion issued instructions to seek out East European Jewish scientists who could "either increase the capacity to kill masses or to cure masses; both things are important." At that time such capacity meant chemical and biological weaponry. Because Israel's survival was at stake, it could not afford not to develop such capabilities. It did not follow, however, that Ben Gurion was sanguine about the use of such weapons. He never admitted that Israel was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, and he did not suggest their use.
Israel's geopolitical circumstances were central to Ben Gurion's strategic pessimism. The Arabs found it difficult to accept the military defeat in 1948 because of their strategic advantages. Israel was too small to achieve a decisive, final defeat of the Arab nations, and its military victories were only temporary and limited. The size of the Arab population and resources made it unlikely that they could be persuaded to accept Israel. After each defeat the Arabs could regroup and hope for victory in another military round.
Ben Gurion was especially anxious about an Arab coalition led by a charismatic leader carrying the banner of Arab unity. During his last years in office, his anxiety intensified. He told one of his aides: "I could not sleep all night, not even for one second. I had one fear in my heart: a combined attack by all Arab armies." He expressed these fears to foreign leaders, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Charles de Gaulle.
The only solution to Israel's security problem was a robust deterrent force. Since the mid-1950s Ben Gurion had sought this goal in two ways. First, through an alliance with one or more Western powers, which would formally guarantee Israel's territorial integrity; second, by building a nuclear weapons option. Until his last day in office Ben Gurion expressed an interest in a military pact with, or formal security guarantees from, the United States, but from the mid-1950s on he came to doubt the feasibility and credibility of the idea, and whether it was in Israel's interest.
Without access to the pertinent classified archival materials, it is difficult to say when exactly Ben Gurion began to think about nuclear weapons as a practical option. He was fascinated with the idea from the first days of the State, but it was only after he returned to the Ministry of Defense in 1955, and after Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, that he became convinced the time had come to pursue the effort in earnest. "What Einstein, Oppenheimer and Teller, the three of them are Jews, made for the United States," wrote Ben Gurion in 1956, "could also be done by scientists in Israel for their own people." Ben Gurion's determination to launch the nuclear project was the result of strategic intuition and obsessive fears, not of a well-thought-out plan. He believed Israel needed nuclear weapons as insurance if it could no longer compete with the Arabs in an arms race, and as a weapon of last resort in case of an extreme military emergency. Nuclear weapons might also persuade the Arabs to accept Israel's existence, leading to peace in the region.
He never spelled out these reasons publicly. His only public reference to the nuclear program was in a speech to the Knesset in December 1960, in which he talked of the nuclear project's "peaceful purposes." Away from the public eye, however, he was less reticent, even if his comments were veiled. On 27 June 1963, eleven days after he announced his resignation, Ben Gurion delivered a farewell address to the employees of the Armaments Development Authority (RAFAEL) in which, without referring to nuclear weapons, he provided the justification for the nuclear project:
I do not know of any other nation whose neighbors declare that they wish to terminate it, and not only declare, but prepare for it by all means available to them. We must have no illusions that what is declared every day in Cairo, Damascus, Iraq are just words. This is the thought that guides the Arab leaders. ...
Our numbers are small, and there is no chance that we could compare ourselves with America's 180 million, or with any Arab neighboring state. There is one thing, however, in which we are not inferior to any other people in the world--this is the Jewish brain. And science, if a lay person like myself could say, starts from the brain. And the Jewish brain does not disappoint; Jewish science does not disappoint. ... I am confident, based not only on what I heard today, that our science can provide us with the weapons that are needed to deter our enemies from waging war against us. I am confident that science is able to provide us with the weapon that will secure the peace, and deter our enemies.
Ben Gurion knew that the birth of the State of Israel was the result of Hitler's atrocities--the need to find a home for Jewish survivors--rather than as a triumph of Zionism. Even after the 1948 war Ben Gurion continued to believe that the survival of the State of Israel was not assured, surrounded as it was with larger and richer neighbors vowing to destroy it.
When, in the early 1950s, Ben Gurion decided, against strong opposition from both the Right and Left, that the State of Israel should accept financial reparations from Germany, he justified it by saying that Jews will never again be helpless: "They [the Arabs] could slaughter us tomorrow in this country ... We don't want to reach again the situation that you were in. We do not want the Arab Nazis to come and slaughter us." The reparations from Germany would make Israel strong so that potential perpetrators, contemplating inflicting another catastrophe on the Jewish people, would know that they would pay a steep price if they tried.
In his public speeches and writings as prime minister Ben Gurion rarely discussed the Holocaust. In private conversations and communications with foreign leaders, however, he returned to the lessons of the Holocaust time and again. In his correspondence with President John F. Kennedy in 1963, he linked Arab enmity to Israel with Hitler's hatred of the Jews, and wrote:
I know that it is difficult for civilized people to visualize such a thing--even after they have witnessed what had happened to us during the Second World War. I do not assume that could happen today or tomorrow. I am not so young anymore, and it may not happen in my lifetime. But I cannot dismiss the possibility that this may occur, if the situation in the Middle East remains as it is, and the Arab leaders continue to insist on and pursue their policy of belligerency against Israel. And it does not matter whether it will or will not happen during my lifetime. As a Jew I know the history of my people, and carry with me the memories of all it has endured over a period of three thousand years, and the effort it has cost to accomplish what has been achieved in this country in recent generations. ... Mr. President, my people have the right to exist, both in Israel and wherever they may live, and this existence is in danger.
Anxiety about the Holocaust reached beyond Ben Gurion to infuse Israeli military thinking. The destruction of Israel defined the ultimate horizon of the threat against Israel. Israeli military planners have always considered a scenario in which a united Arab military coalition launched a war against Israel with the aim of liberating Palestine and destroying the Jewish state. This was referred to in the early 1950s as mikre ha'kol, or the "everything scenario." This kind of planning was unique to Israel, as few nations have military contingency plans aimed at preventing apocalypse.
ERNST DAVID BERGMANN
For a small and technologically dependent nation in the mid-1950s to embark on a nuclear project, more than the leadership's political commitment was required. There was also a need for scientific and organizational leadership to set goals, devise strategies, assign tasks, allocate funds, recruit scientists and managers, and oversee operations. These make the difference between a leader's vision and a credible nuclear-weapon project.
From the beginning Ben Gurion had two faithful and committed lieutenants: Ernst David Bergmann and Shimon Peres. Ben Gurion provided the political authority and commitment, while Bergmann and Peres delivered the energy and enthusiasm required to make the project a reality.
Israel Dostrovsky, who replaced Bergmann at the helm of the IAEC in 1966, characterized Bergmann's role in this way:
The role of Professor David Bergmann, Ben Gurion's advisor on these issues, was vital. In my view Ben Gurion accepted the judgment of Bergmann without question. Hence, all suggestions that were brought for discussion must have been endorsed by Bergmann first, and if Bergmann had been persuaded, Ben Gurion would have been as well.
For fifteen years before working for Ben Gurion, Bergmann was the protege of Chaim Weizmann, an eminent chemist and Ben Gurion's rival in the Zionist movement. When Bergmann, a young organic chemistry lecturer, was expelled by the Nazis in 1933 from the University of Berlin, Weizmann hired him to head the newly established Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot (in 1949 it was incorporated into the new Weizmann Institute of Science). On his return to Palestine after the Second World War, he resumed his position as scientific director of the Sieff Institute and was expected to be its director after Weizmann. The close relationship between the two, however, came to a bitter end in the late 1940s for personal reasons and differences over the way Bergmann ran the Institute (see chapter 3).
Bergmann was drawn to Ben Gurion in the late 1940s because of Ben Gurion's conviction that Israel's future depended on harnessing science and technology. In August 1948 Ben Gurion appointed Bergmann head of the scientific department of the IDF. On 15 July 1951 Bergmann was made scientific adviser to the minister of defense, and in early 1952 was appointed director of research of the newly created Division of Research and Infrastructure (Agaf Mechkar Ve'tichun, or EMET) of the Ministry of Defense. Even with this increased responsibility he continued to teach organic chemistry at the Hebrew University. In June 1952 the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) was quietly established, with Bergmann as its head. He held these three posts until his final resignation in April 1966.
In his eulogy for Bergmann, Shimon Peres described the extraordinary alliance between Ben Gurion and Bergmann: "Bergmann's scientific vision was attracted to Ben Gurion's statesmanlike vision, and the plowman met the sower. From the start a visionary alliance was forged between them, over science, defense and politics, that marked some of the most fateful moves of the State of Israel." Bergmann, a German Jew, was attracted to Ben Gurion's statesmanship and to the opportunity to shape Israel's scientific future. Ben Gurion was attracted to Bergmann's scientific vision and optimism. Bergmann, with his conviction that science can provide solutions to every problem, was Ben Gurion's ideal Zionist scientist: one who subjects science to the service of the Zionist revolution.
Bergmann also shared Ben Gurion's conviction that the Holocaust justified Israel in taking any steps to ensure its survival. "I am convinced," Peres cited him as saying, "that the State of Israel needs a defense research program of its own, so that we shall never again be as lambs led to the slaughter." Bergmann elaborated on this theme in a 1966 letter to Meir Ya'ari, the leader of the left-wing MAPAM, who opposed nuclear weapons. After writing that the spread of nuclear weapons was unavoidable and that many countries, including Arabs, would achieve nuclear capability, he said:
I was surprised that a man like you ... is prepared to close his eyes and assume that reality is how we would all like to see it. There is no person in this country who does not fear a nuclear war and there is no man in this country who does not hope that, despite it all, logic will rule in the world of tomorrow. But we are not permitted to exchange precise knowledge and realistic evaluations for hopes and illusions. I cannot forget that the Holocaust came on the Jewish people as a surprise. The Jewish people cannot allow themselves such an illusion for a second time.
Bergmann's "overabundance of zeal," as Peres referred to it, were regarded as a flaw by other scientists, who questioned his scientific judgment. His tendency to exaggerate on scientific matters that he little understood, for example, was evident in his report on the Atoms for Peace Conference in 1955. Commenting on the notion of "nuclear fusion," he wrote, "The prevailing view is that one of the possibilities to obtain the high temperatures required for thermonuclear reactions is by putting together a few hollow charges," and added that "for the last two years our people too have been playing with this idea." The three scientists who were members of the Israeli delegation to the conference were embarrassed by the comments and asked him to delete them. Amos de Shalit noted that he was "concerned that those who are not informed about the subject would get a very misleading idea about our activities in this field by reading such statements"; Dostrovsky suggested removing the entire reference to fusion, and taking out the reference to "hollow charges"; and Giulio (Yoel) Racah noted that "this is the first time I hear that we are playing with the idea for two years, and I would like to know who are those 'we'."
Bergmann's zeal, however, was important in his relationship with Ben Gurion. He educated Ben Gurion on the nuclear revolution, persuading him that nuclear energy might be the key for the survival and prosperity of Israel. In his view, nuclear energy would enable Israel to compensate for its disadvantages in natural resources and military manpower. Nuclear technology would open options for civilian and military applications, because, "by developing atomic energy for peaceful uses, you reach the nuclear option. There are no two atomic energies."
Bergmann steered the direction of Israel's nuclear activities from 1948 to 1955. He founded the IAEC in 1952 and shaped its early activities. His autocratic conduct within the IAEC, however, drove its physicists to the Weizmann Institute, and they soon formed the main opposition to his plans. His role diminished further as Israel's nuclear project began to take shape. He was not a good administrator, and appeared oblivious to economic considerations.
In 1956-58, when the important decisions were made, Bergmann was still the chairman of the IAEC, but he was no longer the man in charge. Shimon Peres, who made the decisions on behalf of Ben Gurion, consulted many experts, often without Bergmann's presence. On the critical issue of the reactor, Peres overruled Bergmann's idea that Israel should build the reactor on its own, forming instead a partnership with France to supply the reactor and other facilities.
Under Prime Minister Levi Eshkol his role dwindled further. Bergmann no longer enjoyed the trust and authority he had under Ben Gurion, and in June 1964 he offered his resignation to Eshkol. Eshkol did not accept the resignation, and Bergmann was persuaded to stay on. In 1965 Ben Gurion and Peres left MAPAI to form a new party, RAFI. Bergmann's involvement in RAFI ended whatever rapport he may have had with Eshkol. When, on 1 April 1966, he submitted his resignation from his three posts at the Ministry of Defense, his resignation was welcomed. Eshkol decorated him with Israel's highest award for contribution to the security of the State, and nominated himself, in his capacity as prime minister, to be the new chairman of the IAEC.
Bergmann inspired Ben Gurion to believe that Israel could have a nuclear weapons option, but it was Shimon Peres who persuaded Ben Gurion in 1956-57 that the time was right to initiate the nuclear project. From the beginning Peres was entrusted by Ben Gurion to lead Israel's pursuit of a nuclear capability. Dostrovsky writes:
In addition to Bergmann there was another individual who contributed much to decision-making at the time, and this was Shimon Peres. He personally took it upon himself to promote the issues involved with atomic energy, particularly the relationship with France that started then. There is no doubt that because of the great push that he gave to this effort, it was advanced.
This an understatement. Although Peres never served in uniform, he was the wunderkind of Israel's defense establishment. In 1947, at only twenty-three years of age, he was recruited by Levi Eshkol to join the Haganah headquarters staff in Tel Aviv, located in the Red House. Within months Peres took charge of arms procurement deals, something he continued to pursue in higher positions for years to come. After a brief period as the administrator of the Israeli navy, Peres was sent in 1949 to the Ministry of Defense's mission in New York, first as deputy and later as head of mission.
In 1952, on returning from New York, Peres was appointed deputy director-general of the Ministry of Defense. A year later, at age twenty-nine, he was appointed director-general, the highest civil servant at the ministry. Running the daily operations of the ministry, he became acquainted with Bergmann's nuclear vision. "I was as intrigued as Ben Gurion and as enthusiastic as Bergmann," Peres would write (134). Peres's boundless energy and political skills became the necessary ingredient in realizing Israel's nuclear hopes.
After Ben Gurion returned to power in 1955, Peres supervised the regrouping of the national nuclear program and led the search for ways to make it a reality. Until his resignation from the Ministry of Defense a decade later, Peres was the man in charge of Israel's nuclear project. Peres later wrote:
From the outset, I resolved to keep my role entirely out of the public lime-light. ... For this reason, my name was never included in any formal committee created in the area of atomic energy. That did not, however, prevent me from effectively running the entire program on behalf of Ben Gurion, nor did it impair in any way my authority. Ben Gurion trusted me. Professor Bergmann worked with me with no reservations. In time, I was able to win the trust and confidence of the other scientists, engineers and senior personnel engaged in the project. (135)
Some would question the accuracy of the last sentence, but it is indisputable that Peres played a pivotal role in making the early decisions that determined the character and direction of the project. In his 1995 memoirs Peres cites some of the principles that guided him in leading the program, writing that, at the outset, he knew what the project's limits were. He took issue with both Bergmann's optimistic view that Israel could take the nuclear path on its own, and with "almost the entire scientific community's" opposition "to any effort on Israel's part to enter upon the nuclear age" (133-35). One principle that guided him through "what could be done and what could not," was,
to insist that we need not invent things that had already been invented by others elsewhere. Originality was necessary, of course, but it was not an end in itself. This outlook brought me into headlong collision with Bergmann. He believed that Israel had the potential and the ability to build its own nuclear reactors; I maintained that, if it were at all possible, we would be better to buy one abroad. (135)
This dispute between Peres and Bergmann was linked to the question of the role of foreign supplier. By 1955 it was doubtful whether Israel could receive meaningful nuclear assistance from a Western power that would help Israel achieve its goal. As part of the Atoms for Peace program, the United States indicated its readiness to sell Israel a small experimental reactor under U.S. safeguards, but apart from training and basic research, it was recognized that this would not allow Israel to realize a nuclear weapons option. The help would have to come from another place. From the late 1940s Bergmann and others saw France as Israel's best hope for nuclear assistance. Bergmann cultivated scientific exchanges between the French atomic energy commission (CEA) and the IAEC, but in 1955 it became clear that without a political breakthrough, these friendly relations would fall short of Israel's needs.
Peres changed that. Of Peres's many indispensable contributions to making Israel a nuclear power, none is more important than his forming and cementing the nuclear relationship between France and Israel. More than any other Israeli decision maker, Peres grasped that a unique opportunity emerged for such cooperation. In the face of stiff opposition and bitter criticism, he proceeded, indefatigably and single-mindedly, to exploit this opportunity. Peres was the architect of the Franco-Israeli alliance that made the Dimona deal possible. Peres would later say that, as early as 1953, he was looking for opportunities to forge closer relations with France. These efforts yielded few results during the tenure of Pinhas Lavon, who was skeptical of Peres's French orientation, but the return of Ben Gurion to power in 1955 provided the necessary political backing for Peres's efforts (117-19). The relationship with France was another principle of Peres's leadership of Israel's nuclear program.
[It] was that, of all the countries engaged in nuclear research and development, only France might be prepared to help us. I believed, therefore, that all our diplomatic efforts should be focused on France--on the French government and on the French scientific and industrial community. (135)
Whether these tenets were undergirding the Israeli program "at the outset," and to what extent they were a matter of forethought, is open to question. It is the case, however, that evolving circumstances between the summer of 1956 and the fall of 1957 created a unique opportunity for Israel to launch its nuclear weapons program, and that it was Shimon Peres who, more than any other individual, was responsible for shaping this opportunity.
Peres was also instrumental in selecting the project's scientists and managers. Unlike the Manhattan Project, to which many distinguished American physicists were asked to contribute, many Israeli scientists were left out. The Manhattan Project needed as many of the best physicists to prove that a nuclear bomb could be developed, a fact on which subsequent nuclear programs were able to build. In Israel participation was limited also because top Israeli scientists had reservations about Bergmann's and Peres's nuclear vision. As a result, it was decided to bypass the scientific establishment. In Peres's words:
I concluded early on that Israel's own nuclear physics "establishment," in the main, would not be a source of support. Most of the top men simply did not believe that Israel had the ability to build its own nuclear option, and they gave frank voice to their opinion. My decision, therefore, was to approach the younger generation, men just recently graduated from the Technion in Haifa, who had an initial grounding in the discipline and had not yet been infected by the doubts and reservations of their more senior colleagues. In any event, most of the Israeli scientists who worked on building and operating our nuclear reactor were drawn from the ranks of these younger graduates. (135)
Decades later Peres explained the philosophy that had guided him in the following way: "Between existing and investing for the long-run I thought that my role was to represent the future. The Chief of Staff is on the job for three, four, years. I thought in terms of ten years ahead." There is no doubt that such a long-term outlook led Peres, with the support of Ben Gurion and the inspiration of Bergmann, to initiate, set up, and promote the nuclear project and other long-term projects that the senior officers of the IDF at the time had often opposed. But this is not the whole story.
For the young and politically ambitious Peres, there were political and bureaucratic reasons that attracted him to the nuclear project, beyond his belief in the project's contribution to Israel's security. Peres's rise in the Ministry of Defense was meteoric, and he enjoyed Ben Gurion's support; but he also faced resentment and criticism, even scorn, from experienced senior IDF officers, especially PALMACH veterans. In the eyes of these senior officers, Peres's lack of military experience undermined his credibility on national security issues. These officers also had reservations about investing the nation's limited defense resources in the nuclear project, which many regarded as a fantasy.
For Peres, establishing a secret nuclear project under his own supervision meant also creating a new political and bureaucratic power base. It added to his special relationship with Ben Gurion and allowed Peres to promote a new strategy for Israeli national security, a strategy that made traditional military strategy less relevant. The nuclear project also led Peres, an avid reader who has always been interested in ideas and who sought the company of intellectuals, to form an alliance with experts and professionals, primarily scientists and technocrats. This alliance with the new "knowledge elite" became over the years one of Peres's distinguishing characteristics as a politician and a leader.
The success of a scientific-technological project of the magnitude of the Israeli nuclear project cannot by explained by appealing to the "great men" theory of history. Ben Gurion, Bergmann, and Peres could not have succeeded on their own without the help of others. The contributions of a number of individuals are just as important, as is the ethos that emphasizes the importance and feasibility of the nuclear project.
Israel Dostrovsky was born in Russia in 1918 and emigrated with his family to Palestine a year later. Dostrovsky was among the first Israeli natives ("Sabras") to become scientists. He studied physical chemistry at University College in London, receiving his doctorate in 1943. He taught and researched for five years in the United Kingdom, becoming an authority on isotope research. He returned to Palestine in 1948 and founded the Department of Isotope Research at the Weizmann Institute. At the same time, as a major in the IDF Science Corps, he created HEMED GIMMEL, the unit that led the way to the nuclear project. This combination of government service and academic work would mark Dostrovsky's career. It was difficult at times to distinguish Dostrovsky's involvement in science from his involvement in defense projects. Thus the technical methods that Dostrovsky and his colleagues developed in the early 1950s in the areas of isotope separation and uranium extraction were claimed by both the Weizmann Institute and the IAEC as their own inventions.
In 1965, after Dostrovsky completed four years of research at Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, Deputy Minister of Defense Zvi Dinstein asked him to reorganize the IAEC to ensure the prime minister's control over nuclear matters. Against the backdrop of the bitter rift between Ben Gurion and Eshkol, this was a complex and sensitive assignment. When Bergmann departed in mid-1966, Eshkol became the chairman of the IAEC, and Dostrovsky became the commission's director-general until 1971.
The Katchalsky-Katzir brothers of the Weizmann Institute--the late Aharon (born 1913) and Ephraim (born 1916)--were among HEMED founders (Aharon was the secretary of the scientific department while Ephraim was HEMED commander for a brief period in 1948). They were among the first to receive doctorates from the Hebrew University, doing interdisciplinary work in organic chemistry and biology. In the mid-1940s, before Bergmann returned to Palestine, Aharon Katzir was the scientist closest to Ben Gurion. He was the first to discuss the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with Ben Gurion. As a young lecturer at the Hebrew University in 1946-47, Aharon Katzir recruited science students to form the first units dedicated to experimenting with weaponry and explosives for the Haganah. These recruits became the core of HEMED in early 1948.
Though the Katzir brothers did not devote their full time to defense research, they had a lifelong involvement in RAFAEL projects and were occasionally drafted for help on matters relating to lead projects (in 1968 Ephraim Katzir agreed to serve as a chief scientist at the Ministry of Defense for a limited period). Their role in making the nuclear project possible was more political than technical or scientific.
Shalheveth Freier was also among the individuals who greatly contributed to the nuclear project. He was one of those mysterious individuals who became a legend in their own time. In the pre-state period he played a role in organizing an intelligence network in Jerusalem for the Haganah; he was also involved in the activities of Aliyah Bet (smuggling Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine in defiance of British restrictions) and Rechesh (armaments procurement). In 1954 he was the acting administrator of EMET, replacing Munya Mardor. In the summer of 1956, when the Israeli-French deal was put together, Peres and Bergmann asked Freier to be the Israeli science attache at the embassy in Paris, taking charge of putting together the secret deal. Peres commented that Freier was the kind of person the project needed in France. The Israeli-French agreement was so extraordinary in its scope and implementation that there was a need for an extraordinary person to manage its political subtleties in the context of France's Fourth Republic. Years later, in the capacity of director-general of the IAEC (he replaced Dostrovsky in 1971), Freier was involved in securing opacity as Israel's nuclear doctrine.
Another constituency that contributed to the initiation of the nuclear project in 1956-57 was the small group of scientists and engineers concentrated around Machon (Institute) 4. When Peres and Bergmann began to draw the master plan for the project, based on obtaining a large production reactor and other assistance from France and a smaller research reactor from the United States, they were helped by the small group of nuclear enthusiasts waiting impatiently for the age of reactors (Israel Pelah, Ze'ev [Venia] Hadari-Pomerantz, and others). Peres and Bergmann were also given advice, at times critical, by the nuclear physicists of the Weizmann Institute (Amos de Shalit, Zvi Lipkin, Igal Talmi, Gideon Yekutielli, and others).
Then there were those who played an important role in implementing the project once the political decision was made. Colonel Manes Pratt, the legendary Ordinance Corps commander, an engineer by profession, was the most significant figure among the executors. In his memoirs Peres describes how he selected Pratt to coordinate Dimona's construction:
I realized that much would depend on the character and ability of the project manager. I looked for a "pedant," a man who would not compromise over detail, whether vital or ostensibly marginal. ... At the same time, the candidate had to be a man with an "open mind," that is, a capacity to learn on the job; after all, he would not have any prior experience in building nuclear reactors. My choice fell on Manes Pratt. ... Pratt had three university degrees and a finely developed aesthetic sense, which stood in incongruous contrast to his tough, no-nonsense approach to work. ... I knew when I appointed him that he would give me a hard time, and indeed he did: he was never prepared to accept any product of our own Military Industries unless it met the most stringent international standards.
Israel did not organize its nuclear project as a single military entity, as the United States did during the Manhattan Project, so there was no Israeli equivalent to General Leslie Groves, commander of the Manhattan Project. In terms of his leadership style and management approach, however, Pratt was the closest Israeli replica of Groves. Much of the credit for building the Dimona complex belongs to Pratt.
Munya Mardor had an important role in promoting the idea of the project before and after it was launched in 1955-58. In the pre-state period he was a key figure in the effort to procure arms in Europe, and later was briefly in charge of the navy. In 1951 Ben Gurion asked him to reorganize and transform HEMED into a postwar, civilian organization named EMET. Afterward, Mardor administered EMET and was committed to make the nuclear dream a reality. In early 1958, after the initial commitment was made, Mardor was asked by Ben Gurion and Peres to ready EMET for the age of the "new projects." EMET was again reorganized and expanded under the new name of Armaments Development Authority (RAFAEL).
Mardor had hoped to be placed in charge of all aspects of Israel's nuclear activity, but this did not happen. Pratt's insistence that he should report only to Peres and Ben Gurion, Peres's own divide-and-rule style of management, and security considerations created from the start a fragmented project. There emerged two prime contractors--Pratt and Mardor--and a few subcontractors, all reporting directly to Peres.
Other key individuals played important roles in Israel's nuclear vision. The late Jenka (Yevgeni) Ratner, an engineer with an artist's touch who was legendary at HEMED for his knowledge of explosives, was in charge of several aspects of the nuclear project since the mid-1950s. The late Eliezer Gon was Ratner's deputy for a number of years and contributed his technical ingenuity to the project. Avraham Hermoni, a chemist who became a professional technical manager, played an important role in developing and monitoring policies for the project in the 1960s. There was also a group of academics who were the theoreticians of the project.
Although the contributions of all these people were invaluable, they pale in comparison to those of Ben Gurion, Bergmann, and Peres. It was Ben Gurion who made the decisions and took the political responsibility to set the project in motion. The judgment to launch the program was a daring political decision, and the credit belongs solely to Ben Gurion. Ben Gurion did not know what the odds for success were, and he could not tell whether the French would assist Israel and for how long, but he was convinced that Israel must try it and that Israeli ingenuity would accomplish it. Ben Gurion, the charismatic leader, was supported by Bergmann, a visionary scientist, and by Peres, an indefatigable, resourceful, and creative politician and executive.
The presence of these three individuals at that particular time and place made the Israeli nuclear project possible. To the extent that one can make such historical judgments, it can be said that, in the absence of any one of these three men and without their unique collaboration, there would not have been an Israeli nuclear project. Other people helped and made important contributions, but the primary credit belongs to these three.
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Meet the Author
Avner Cohen is a senior research fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. He has taught and researched in universities in Israel and the United States and has published numerous articles on subjects as diverse as skepticism, political theory, nuclear ethics, nuclear proliferation, and Israeli history. He is the coeditor of Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity and The Institution of Philosophy.
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