How Shimon Peres Faced Down the Generals and Pacifists to Build Israel’s Nuclear Program via Haaretz

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.”
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?”
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.

read more: 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.
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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