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How Israel Went Nuclear

The father of Israel’s nuclear deterrent reveals how it was built. An exclusive excerpt from No Room For Small Dreams, Shimon Peres’ posthumous autobiography.

Shimon Peres
September 11, 2017
(Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images) No Room For Small Dreams
The Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert, 2002.(Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)(Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images) No Room For Small Dreams
(Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images) No Room For Small Dreams
The Dimona nuclear power plant in the southern Israeli Negev desert, 2002.(Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images)(Photo: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images) No Room For Small Dreams

It was October 24, 1956, at the villa in Sèvres where the French and Israeli leadership were meeting to finalize the plans for Operation Suez. Ben-Gurion and I stood in one of the mansion’s sweeping spaces; it was at once a ballroom, an art museum, and a well-stocked saloon. Across the way, French foreign minister Christian Pineau and defense minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury were deep in conversation, but otherwise unoccupied. I sensed an opportunity, perhaps the perfect moment.

I turned to Ben-Gurion and said in the quietest whisper, “I think I can get it done now.” He gave me a subtle nod of agreement. I took a deep, steeling breath.

I approached the two gentlemen, who by then were dear friends, and raised an issue that caught both by surprise. I had come over to discuss one of Israel’s most ambitious aspirations: to enter the nuclear age. To do so, we would need something from France—something no country in history had ever given another.

Our interest in nuclear energy was not new. It had been a subject of great intellectual curiosity for Ben-Gurion and myself long before that fateful moment in Sèvres. Neither of us was an expert regarding nuclear energy; at best, we were enthusiasts. But we both saw great potential in its peaceful pursuit. For his part, Ben-Gurion believed that only science could compensate for what nature had denied us. Israel had no oil, and it lacked access to sufficient fresh water; nuclear energy held the potential to solve both problems—countries like France were using it not only to create a reliable energy source, but also as a means of desalinating salt water. He also believed, as I did, that there existed great intellectual and economic value at the frontier of technology. By making investments in the cutting edge of science, by building talent and expertise at our universities, we believed we could invigorate the untapped minds of a nation.

(Photo courtesy Custom House/Harper Collins)
(Photo courtesy Custom House/Harper Collins)

There was great power in this idea, to be sure. But in truth, it was a political motivation, more than a scientific one, that animated my interest. If we were to succeed in building a reactor, our enemies would never believe its purpose to be peaceful. Israel was already viewed with such intense suspicion by those opposed to our existence that I was certain neither public statements nor private assurances nor even the presentation of concrete evidence would sway skeptics from believing that we possessed the capacity for nuclear war. As Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan, the “reputation of power is power.” My theory was its corollary: The reputation of nuclear is deterrence. And deterrence, I believed, was the first step on the path toward peace.

At the time, the Arab world had made commitments to Israel’s annihilation a litmus test for leadership; indeed, every Middle Eastern politician or general who hoped to ascend had to prove he was more intent on destroying us than his rival was. I believed that sowing doubt in their ability to actually do so was our highest security imperative.

Over time, my conversations with Ben-Gurion shifted from the theoretical to the practical. If we were to even entertain such an effort, we intended to understand exactly what it would require. First, it was to be a massive undertaking—both in terms of the scale of the construction and the scientific capability it required. Second, Israel lacked the raw materials and the engineering experience required to build a reactor. At the same time, we well understood that cutting corners was not an option, either—with nuclear energy, compromise and catastrophe are one and the same.

What we needed was help, and as the country with whom we’d built our closest friendship, France represented an opportunity. As Europe’s most advanced country in the nuclear field, it also represented our best option. Indeed, the French industry had built teams of engineers and scientists with precise expertise. France’s universities were the best place in the world to study nuclear physics. They had at their disposal everything we would need to build a nuclear reactor.

Ben-Gurion had decided it would not be enough for me to raise the issue with the French. I had to make an explicit request: to sell Israel a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes. It was a request without precedent, and one I expected my friends to decline. They were already taking a great risk violating the Western arms embargo to sell us weapons in secret. But something of this magnitude, if discovered, was far more dangerous, with the potential to damage French relations with both its Arab partners and its Western allies. Still, I felt that if such an agreement were possible between any countries, it was possible between France and Israel. And so I set out to try.

After their momentary shock at my question, Pineau and Bourgès-Maunoury excused themselves to the other side of the villa to discuss the matter in private. The timing of the request was not a coincidence, and I suspected they understood this. At the very same moment, Moshe Dayan was in an adjacent room with his French and British counterparts, drafting the Sèvres Protocol, which would govern the Sinai campaign, including the requirement that we attack first. We all knew that Ben-Gurion had agreed to that plan only at the urging of the French. I wanted Bourgès-Maunoury and Pineau to remember that, and to consider it when weighing the risks inherent in my request of them.

A few moments later, the two returned. To my utter surprise, they nodded in agreement.

“I am ready to draft the agreement right away,” said Pineau.


While we had the unanimous support of the French senior leadership, we arrived back in Jerusalem to find near-unanimous dissent. Golda Meir insisted that such a project would hurt Israel’s relationship with the United States, while Isser Harel, the Mossad chief, raised fears of a Soviet response. Some predicted an invasion by ground forces, while others envisioned an attack from the air. The head of the foreign relations committee said he feared the project would be “so expensive that we shall be left without bread and even without rice”—an acknowledgment that in the age of austerity, we were still struggling to feed our people. For his part, Levi Eshkol, then the finance minister, promised we wouldn’t see a penny from him. Among the group, there was disagreement only about which disastrous outcome was most likely.

The response was no more encouraging within the scientific community. Israel’s physicists voiced objections to entangling scientific work with government action, which they feared would stifle their research work and harm their international reputations. But more to the point, they argued that such a pursuit was both unwise and impractical. How naïve they thought I was for believing a state so small could undertake a task so large. This was not vision, it was delusion, and they would have nothing to do with it. When I approached the Weizmann Institute, the most prestigious institute in all of Israel, the head of the physics department said I was dreaming irresponsibly, that surely such an effort would lead Israel down a dark and dangerous path. He made sure I understood that his institute would play no role in whatever I intended.

Innovation, I have come to understand, is always an uphill climb. But rarely does it find so many obstacles arrayed against it at all once. We had no money, no engineers, no support from the physics community or the cabinet or the military leadership or the opposition. “What are we going to do?” Ben-Gurion asked me late one night, as we sat quietly in his office. It was the operative question. What we had was a French promise—only that, and each other.

I was often reminded about how unusual my relationship with Ben-Gurion had become—how rare it was to have a prime minister place so much trust in a young man with a junior title. Again and again, he had taken a risk in putting me in charge of important and controversial projects. And so while the reasonable answer to his question would have been to admit defeat, I decided that I owed it to him to find another way. Failing honestly and with integrity was something I could accept—but only if I was sure that my efforts to succeed had been worthy of the trust he had placed in me. In this case, that trust was so vast that, rather than surrender, I proposed an alternative plan.

That plan drew upon my experience with Al Schwimmer. The lack of public resources could be made up for with private resources, I argued. And with the right kind of recruiting effort, I believed we could build a team of Israeli engineers who could work alongside their French counterparts.

“If we fail to secure the money and the team, we can accept defeat,” I said. “Until then, I think it would be foolish not to make the attempt.”

Ben-Gurion agreed. “Go then,” he told me. “Give order to the story.”

We took to the phones and made passionate, personal (and highly confidential) appeals to some of Israel’s most reliable donors from around the world. In short order, we had raised enough money to cover half the cost of the reactor—more than enough to start building our team.

We were lucky to count Yisrael Dostrovsky as one of our early members. A decorated Israeli scientist, Dostrovsky had invented a process for manufacturing heavy water and sold it to the French years earlier. But even he could not compete with the brilliance of Ernst David Bergmann, whom I approached to join the mission. In 1934, legend has it, Chaim Weizmann sought Albert Einstein’s recommendation for a scientist to lead his newly created institute outside Tel Aviv. Einstein gave him only one name—that of Ernst Bergmann, who had earned his total confidence. As one of Israel’s only physicists in favor of our efforts, he would quickly earn my confidence, as well.

With Bergmann and Dostrovsky, we had scientific know-how. But what we needed even more was a project manager whom we could trust with such a delicate task. We needed a pedantic stickler, someone allergic to compromise—especially given the dangers involved in radioactive work. And yet we also needed someone who was agile, someone willing to take on a project for which he would certainly lack expertise. There was a natural tension that existed between those requirements, one that quickly whittled down my list of candidates to one.

Manes Pratt was a decorated academic with a wealth of real-world experience. We met during the War of Independence, when we worked together on the frantic building up of the IDF. He was consistently and insistently precise, the kind of man for whom perfection is not a distant pursuit, but a minimum ante. He was quick-footed and quick-witted, and he demanded in those around him the same relentless work ethic he practiced.

When I explained my proposal and the position I wanted him to consider, he looked as though he could have struck me. He couldn’t disguise his disbelief.

“Are you crazy?” he demanded. “I don’t have the slightest idea what it would take to build a reactor. I don’t know how it looks; I don’t even know what it is! How could you expect me to take charge of such a project?”

“Manes, look: I know that you don’t know anything yet. But if there is somebody in this country who can become an expert after studying it for three months, that person is clearly you.”

His agitation started to subside. “And what exactly would that entail?”

I suggested that we would send him to France for three months to study nuclear reactors alongside the experts who would help us build one. And I promised that if he returned to Israel after that time still uncomfortable with his fluency in the topic, he could simply return to his previous work. With no requirement for a permanent commitment, Pratt ultimately agreed. And to no one’s surprise, when he returned from France, he did so as the finest nuclear expert we would ever come to know.

With the leadership in place, I turned to the work of building the rest of the team. I knew that the older generation of physicists was deeply opposed to our efforts, but I suspected that we could find students and young graduates who were eager to pursue such an ambitious project. Having been turned away by the Weizmann Institute, I turned to the Israeli Institute of Technology, in Haifa, known as the Technion. There I found a group of scientists and engineers who were eager to take the leap alongside us. Like Pratt, I intended to send each Technion recruit to France for a period of study.

The next part of the challenge lay less in convincing the young scientists to sign up and more in helping them convince their own families. We intended to locate the reactor in the Negev, near Beersheba, which at the time was like the end of the world. The young Israeli families were understandably reluctant to leave the modern cities of Haifa and Tel Aviv for a harsh and distant desert. And if this was how the Israelis felt, I suspected the French contractors would be apoplectic. So I pledged to them not just to build an industrial facility, but to build a community—indeed, a whole separate suburb in Beersheba with all they needed for a high quality of life: good schools, a modern hospital, a shopping court—even a hair salon.

After some reluctance, the families put their trust in me and the work began. The students went off to France to study nuclear engineering—and I joined them, not as the leader of the project but as a peer. Chemistry and nuclear physics were challenging subjects, to be sure, and I came to them without any previous training. But I felt it essential to gain a degree of mastery in the science that would be driving the project. In previous endeavors, I had come to understand that in addition to a clear vision and strategy, true leadership requires intricate knowledge—a facility with the granular details of every aspect of the mission. If I were to lead a group of scientists and engineers, I had an obligation to understand the work I was asking them to undertake. And so, alongside these young physicists, I spent day and night studying atomic particles and nuclear energy, and the process required to harness its power.

Funds and scientists in place, what remained was the work of formalizing the partnership with France. We had signed an initial agreement laying out our intentions in broad terms, but there were still details requiring discussion. In the summer of 1957, I flew to Paris to begin making arrangements.

When I arrived, Bourgès-Maunoury was the newly minted prime minister. Guy Mollet’s government had fallen in June. For Israel, there was serendipity in the timing. Though Mollet had always been a generous and reliable partner, I had developed an especially close friendship with Bourgès-Maunoury. His sense of humor could be grim and cynical, but in truth, he was as hopeful an optimist as I, and he consistently looked upon Israel with an instinctive sense of obligation. His support for the Jewish state resided somewhere deep in his soul, and I felt there was nothing of him I could not ask.

Together we worked through other agreements, which outlined the ways our two nations would cooperate. Bourgès-Maunoury was supportive, but Pineau, who by then had become foreign minister, had raised concerns about the proposed wording. I was sure that, in normal circumstances, Pineau and I could find common ground and common language—that his concerns could be relieved quite easily through compromise. But just as we were processing the substance of Pineau’s objections, Bourgès-Maurnoury’s government, just formed, began to crumble. For Israel, this was nothing short of a crisis. We needed to secure support from both men before they no longer had the power to provide it.

I was in Israel when I learned the French parliament was preparing a vote of no confidence in Bourgès-Maunoury, and set off for Paris at once. By the time I arrived, it was clear the government would fall the following night. I had just one day—to persuade Pineau to agree to the proposed arrangement, to secure the necessary two signatures, to end the crisis, and to save the program. I was suddenly a witness to and participant in one of the greatest dramas of my life.

I started with Pineau. When I arrived at his office, it was clear he had been expecting me. He greeted me kindly but wasted no time informing me that his position was final, and that he was firmly opposed to the agreement as worded. His concerns were largely based in a fear that the agreement would become public. I pleaded with him to give me a final chance to persuade him. Out of respect for our long-standing friendship, he obliged.

I responded as thoroughly as I could. I spoke from the heart about the genuine anguish I felt for my state. I wanted to be sure he understood the power he held in his hands, and the consequence of his decision, one way or the other. This was not a moment that would be forgotten; it was one upon which history would hinge.

Finally, he spoke.

“I accept your arguments, Shimon,” he declared to my utter surprise. “You’ve convinced me.”

It was an unexpected and energizing victory, but with time running short, I knew that Pineau’s acquiescence was insufficient to secure the deal on its own. I pressed for urgency.

“What is your consent worth after the government falls? Perhaps you could call Bourgès-Maunoury. He needs to hear it from you.”

Pineau agreed, but he was unable to reach Bourgès-Maunoury. We learned he was in session, presiding over his final cabinet meeting. With Bourgès-Maunoury behind closed doors, there was no way I could get to him before the government fell.

I refused to accept this. “Give me your consent in writing, then, and I’ll bring it to Bourgès-Maunoury straightaway!”

Pineau obliged, though he seemed convinced the exercise was futile. I thanked him for his extraordinary effort and friendship, then raced for the door.

I arrived at parliament out of breath and undeterred. I didn’t know how I’d get to Bourgès-Maunoury, but I hoped an answer would reveal itself. And indeed, as I headed up the stairs of the French parliament, the answer was heading down them: it was an aide to Bourgès-Maunoury, one I had come to know well over the
years. He recognized me and greeted me in French. I explained the situation in all its stressful detail, then scribbled a note to Bourgès-Maunoury quickly on a leaf of paper.

“Please deliver this to the prime minister,” I asked him. “It is a matter of the greatest urgency.” The aide agreed. He took the note and disappeared into the chamber while I stood anxiously awaiting a response.

A few minutes later, a voice called to me from down the hallway. “Bonjour, Shimon!” It was Bourgès-Maunoury, embattled but stoic. He explained that after reading my note, he took the unprecedented step of temporarily adjourning the meeting.

“Only for a true friend,” he whispered.

I showed him the letter from Pineau and explained why the stakes were so high. I needed him to return to his meeting and get his cabinet to approve the deal before the end of the session. And I needed him to sign the authorization before his government fell. Bourgès-Maunoury promised his assistance. He would return to the meeting and get swift approval, then temporarily adjourn the meeting once again—giving him just enough time to affix his signature to the final agreement.

“Go wait for me in my office,” he suggested. “I’ll come find you.”

And so I waited. For hours I waited. But Bourgès-Maunoury never came. He had been unable to find a way to excuse himself. The opposition had made their move on the vote of no confidence, and there was little that Bourgès-Maunoury could do to create a delay. Late into the night, the government fell. The document remained unsigned.

The next morning, I returned to Bourgès-Maunoury’s office, as dejected and exhausted as he was. He was now the former prime minister. I didn’t know what to say.

“I understand from you that my socialist friend has consented to the agreement.”

I nodded.

“Wonderful,” he said. “This should take care of it then.”

He took a piece of stationery from a desk that was no longer his and drafted a letter to the chairman of the French Atomic Energy Commission. The French government had approved the deal, he confirmed, and the chairman should fully cooperate in its execution. He signed it as France’s prime minister. At the top of the page, he wrote the previous day’s date.

I asked no questions. I said nothing at all. What was there to say? Bourgès-Maunoury could see the relief in my eyes. He could feel the depth of my appreciation. In that moment, what he had done for Israel—what he had done for me—was the most generous display of friendship I had ever known. The following month, the French established a $10 million line of credit for Israel. At last, it was time to break ground.


I’ve told many people that I built Dimona in order to get to Oslo. Its purpose was not to fight a war, but to prevent one. It was not the reactor that mattered but the echo it generated. I had spent so much of my youth trying to secure Israel for its people. But this was a different kind of security altogether. This was the security of knowing the state would never be destroyed—a first step toward peace that started with peace of mind. In this way, I felt that our work on Dimona, an effort once marked for certain failure, had fulfilled the covenant I had made with my grandfather, but on a far grander scale: to always remain Jewish and ensure the Jewish people always remain.


Excerpted from No Room For Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern IsraelCopyright © 2017 by Shimon Peres. Reprinted by permission of Custom House, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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