How Shimon Peres Stole the Bomb with a Bluff, and Why Military Censor Doesn’t Want Israelis to Know About It
UPDATE: I published this appraisal of a key moment in the political career of Shimon Peres just after he suffered a major stroke. I have updated it now that he has died.
You will read much hagiography in the Peres obituaries published in Israeli and world media. Here is a perfect example in the NY Times of the half-truths and undeserved admiration that is being heaped upon his memory:
He was consistent in his search for an accommodation with the Arab world, a search that in recent years left him orphaned as Israeli society lost interest, especially after the upheavals of the 2011 Arab Spring led to tumult on its borders.
This is at best only partially true. Peres was intermittent in his search for peace with the Arabs. True, in 1993, he led the effort that culminated in the Oslo Accords. But subsequent Israeli governments abandoned them and they eventually came to be discredited entirely both on the left and right.
After the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, Peres had an opportunity to call a snap election which would’ve confirmed his mandate to solidify the gains from those Accords. Instead, he temporized and waited until it was too late. By the time he called elections a year later, Palestinian militants had engineered a series of savage terror attacks inside Israel which discredited Peres’ leadership and brought Bibi Netanyahu to power for his first term as prime minister. Though there were subsequent opportunities for Israeli governments to negotiate peace deals, especially with Ehud Barak, another Labor prime minister, all of them were squandered. Regardless, Peres’ accession to the position in 1995 and the cataclysm that followed, was a pivotal moment that led to the political stagnation which has lasted ever since.
Much of what you will read about Peres is either outright false or only partially true. A certain portion of what you read may even be true. But Shimon Peres is one of those Israeli leaders like Ben Gurion, his mentor, and Ariel Sharon, who built a myth around themselves. Part political hype, part astute branding, and part a need in Israelis and the rest of the world to believe the myth they were sold of Israel as the miracle in the desert, the people which made a barren land bloom, which drained swamps and turned them into thriving kibbutzim. The little State that could.
So in assessing Peres’ legacy it’s important to keep this in mind; to separate fact from fiction; myth from reality.
חשיפה: “בלוף האורניום” של פרס מ-1956, שגם אחרי 60 שנה (!) אסור לפרסום בישראל
Shimon Peres had a severe stroke two days ago and while his health has improved since he entered the hospital, at age 93, he is in the twilight of his years. It’s appropriate to take stock of his legacy as an epochal figure who spans the founding of the State to the present day. I can’t think of another active Israeli politician with that length of service or span of history.
When Peres dies, an entire nation will mourn him as a founding father of the state. Someone who served it faithfully and diligently for nearly seven decades. The accolades will pour forth. Newscasters will show historic footage of him with his political mentor, David Ben Gurion, and intone solemnly about the deeds of the Great Man.
But, as is often the case in these matters, the truth lies elsewhere. Peres began his career as Ben Gurion’s errand boy. He was diligent and inventive. What the boss needed done, he always figured out a way to accomplish. Eventually became his chief fixer. That’s how he was assigned the monumental task of getting Israel the Bomb. Such a task is no small feat and it required immense amounts of grit, determination, invention, and even outright thievery. Peres was more than up to the task.
From almost the first moment after the State was founded Ben Gurion aspired to create a nuclear weapon. He saw it as his Doomsday device. The ace he could draw from the deck if all the cards were stacked against him. Though Israel’s actual strategic strength was quite robust, Ben Gurion suggested otherwise. In a famous episode of that era, he’s reputed to have looked at a map of the Middle East spread upon the wall of his study and exclaimed to those around him: “I didn’t sleep a wink last night because of this map. What is Israel? A single tiny speck. How can it survive amidst this Arab world?!”
This was part and parcel of the Israeli strategy of portraying itself as the eternal victim, the weaker party to every conflict, who required moral and military support to prevent its destruction. None of it was true. But in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the world felt it couldn’t to take a chance that it might happen again. That’s how Israel became little David to the Arab Goliath in the eyes of much of the world after 1948.
Though the conventional Israeli belief is that Israel’s WMD was meant to protect Israel from imminent destruction should it suffer a catastrophic defeat, that theory is wrong either in whole or in part. In actuality, Israel never faced such a threat. It always maintained military superiority over its enemies in every war from 1948 through 1967 (and after).
Ben Gurion’s real goal in obtaining nukes was political. He wanted to ensure Israel would never have to negotiate away the gains it made on the battlefield. He wanted a weapon he could hold over the heads of any enemy, that would ensure he never had to renounce anything that was rightfully Israel’s (in his mind at least). So Israel’s Bomb has enabled it to reject virtually every peace initiative offered going all the way back to 1967. Israel’s leaders knew that the U.S. would never gamble that it wouldn’t use WMD if it had to. So American presidents already had one hand tied behind their backs in such negotiations. In a card game, when one party holds the ace of spades in his pocket and everyone else playing knows this, it’s not much of a game, is it?
Israeli Opponents of the Bomb
It would be a misnomer to believe that Ben Gurion and Peres were lionized by their peers for their visionary project. Opposition to an Israeli Bomb was strong and crossed party lines. Among those who were against were future prime minister Levi Eshkol, Pinchas Sapir, Yigal Alon, Golda Meir, and Israel’s leading weapons developer, Yisrael Galili. Even then IDF chief of staff Chaim Leskov opposed the Bomb. Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, in his typically prophetic fashion created an NGO that called for making the Middle East a nuclear-free zone (it was called in Hebrew “the Public Committee to Demilitarize the Middle East of Nuclear Weapons”). It was probably the first such call anywhere in the world. In one matter, he turned out to be wrong. He predicted that by building the nuclear reactor Israel would tempt its enemies to bomb and destroy it. Afterward, Lebowitz predicted, they would call Dimona: “Shimon’s Folly.”
The sheer chutzpah that Peres employed to get what he wanted was astonishing. He played on the heartstrings of German guilt to obtain funding for the nuclear arms project. He recruited Arnon Milchan as a covert operative to organize a conspiracy to steal highly enriched uranium from the U.S. depository where it was stored. Peres negotiated with the French a complex deal to build the Dimona plant, which to this day produces the plutonium for Israel’s WMD arsenal.
The defense ministry director general traveled extensively to France in those days and cultivated the entire political leadership in pursuit of the necessary agreements to build the Dimona plant. On the very day he flew to France to sign the final deal, the government in Paris fell. Though Ben Gurion saw Peres’ trip as wasted, the latter refused to give up. He went to the resigning prime minister and suggested that they back-date the agreement to make it appear as if it had been signed before the resignation. The French leader agreed. And so, Israel’s Bomb was saved by an audacious bluff. When someone asked Peres afterward how he thought he could get away with such a stratagem, he joked: “What’s 24 hours among friends?”
Peres facilitated outright theft as well. If Israel waited to produce the highly enriched uranium it would need to create a Bomb on its own, it would’ve taken years longer than it did. If it could procure the uranium by other means it would immensely speed the process. That’s how the father of the Israeli Bomb recruited future Hollywood film producer Milchan to steal hundreds of kilos of nuclear materials from a warehouse in Pennsylvania with the connivance of American officials who were pro-Israel Jews recruited to the task.
Roger Mattson recently published a book on the subject, Stealing the Atom Bomb: How Denial and Deception Armed Israel. This article summarizes his findings. Among them, are that a group of American Jewish scientists and engineers founded the company which likely embezzled and transferred to Israel enough material to make six nuclear bombs. Several officers of this company later became national officers in the Zionist Organization of America. A founder of the company fought in the Haganah during the 1948 War and was a protege of future Israeli intelligence chief, Meir Amit. Key figures in U.S. intelligence even suggested that the company itself was established by Israeli intelligence in order to steal U.S. materials and technological expertise in the service of Israel’s nuclear weapons project. All of this means that leaders of one of the key organizations in the Israel Lobby aided and abetted a huge national security breach which gave Israel the bomb.
If you’re a pro-Israel advocate you likely see such figures as heroes. If so, consider this: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1956 for doing far less harm to America’s nuclear program than these individuals did.
Israel Lobby’s Covert Fundraising Program
The WMD project was extraordinarily expensive. The new State, saddled with huge expenses to feed and house millions of new immigrants, had no budget to fund it. That’s where Peres turned to wealthy Diaspora Jews like Abe Feinberg to covertly raise funds for the Israeli bomb. Feinberg spearheaded a fundraising campaign which raised $40-million, equivalent to $260-million in today’s dollars. Feinberg also conspired through his Democratic Party connections to secure from Pres. Johnson Israel’s right to refuse to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation pact.
The Israeli news portal Walla describes the brilliant stratagem Ben Gurion and Peres concocted that drew France to Israel’s side in the effort to make a Bomb. It began in 1956 with a secret meeting at a French villa outside Paris with a high-level British and French contingent. The goals of the French and British were aligned with those of Israel, but not completely so. The British and French wanted to give Egypt’s new firebrand leader, Gamal Nasser a black eye for nationalizing the Suez Canal and offering aid to the Algerian resistance. They hatched a plan to attack Nasser and carve up Egypt’s strategic assets for themselves. Israel was happy to go along for the ride. But it had a separate goal–to garner European support for its nuclear effort.
After getting the go-ahead sign from Ben Gurion, Peres approached his French counterparts and announced Israeli agreement to join in the attack which later came to be known as Operation Kadesh. But Israel, he told them, faced far more danger in the venture than either the British or French. If Israel lost, its very existence could be threatened. That’s why it needed a strategic weapon that could prevent its annihilation in the event of a disastrous defeat.
As negotiations proceeded with the French, they warned the Israelis that there were prohibited from selling them uranium under international agreements. Peres came up with a typically brilliant and devious solution: “Don’t sell it to us, lend it to us,” he said. “We will return it to you after our mission is completed.” So began the real effort to build an Israeli Bomb. The reactor was completed in 1960 and by 1967 Israel had its first primitive nuclear weapon to use in case it lost the 1967 War.
For some strange reason, the Israeli military censor disapproved of Walla talking about Peres’ “bluff” regarding back-dating the French-Israeli nuclear agreement. In the censored version, you won’t find any reference to it. Nor will you find the story about Peres’ suggestion that the French “lend” the uranium to Israel, since it was illegal to sell it. My guess is that with Peres’ demise likely, they preferred not to tarnish the Old Man’s reputation any more than necessary. Which raises the question: why is a censor stooping to protect Israeli politicians’ reputations rather than protecting the security of the state, which is its putative mission?”
17 thoughts on “How Shimon Peres Stole the Bomb with a Bluff, and Why Military Censor Doesn’t Want Israelis to Know About It – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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“When Peres dies…” – wishful thinking of a loving man!
“Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed in 1956 for doing far less harm to America’s nuclear program” – nonsense.
You probably don’y know the term – “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. The Rosenbergs revealed to the Russians secrets about HOW TO BUILD THE BOMB and they did it in the 40’s, right after the US was able to crack the science with ginormous investment. Stealing Uranium (if true) doesn’t even come close to that.
Just to recap, what is worse? revealing Coca-Cola secret recipe or steal a shipment of the product?
Utterly false. The information the Rosenberg’s revealed were not a secret to the Russians. One of the Los Alamos scientist, Klaus Fuchs, had defected to the Soviet Union and had provided them with everything.
@ ToivoS: Yes, of course you are right. Ethel Rosenberg wasn’t involved in espionage at all except as a minor accessory, if that. Julius passed on to the Russians a crude drawing of one of the processes or pieces of equipment used in the nuclear weapons program. As you correctly point out, not only had Klaus Fuchs given the Russians the store years before in 1949, he’d escaped scot-free to Russia, leaving the Rosenbergs to hold the bag and die for their troubles.
Molding history to fit one’s view isn’t a new practice. Crude drawing or not, actions do not compare.
“doing far less harm…” is just cheap propaganda!
“I can’t think of another active Israeli politician with that length of service or span of history.”
Hah, and a lot more clever too!
[comment deleted: off-topic]
“In one matter, he turned out to be wrong. He predicted that by building the nuclear reactor Israel would tempt its enemies to bomb and destroy it. ”
Israel bought its first Hawk anti-aircraft batteries solely to protect Dimona. Nasser threatened war as early as 1960 and then again in 1966 over Dimona. Peres published an article in ’62 stating that Egypt might pursue war due to Israel’s acquisition of “a new powerful weapon”. The Arab states have targeted Dimona in every single one of their attacks posterior to the reactor’s creation, and even enlisted the Soviets to try and get aerial access to it. Nasrallah constantly boasts of his rocket arsenal capable of reaching Dimona. Even Hamas has targeted the complex.
@ OneIsraeli: PLease don’t use handles that are so generic. Pick a handle that distinguishes you from every other hasbara hack here who uses the name “Israeli” in his handle.
Further, threatening to do something and doing it are entirely different things. Nasser threatened to destroy Israel & cast Israelis into the sea. How far did he get? Nasrallah can threaten whatever he wants, but he’s never come anywhere near hitting southern Israel, let alone Dimona. His chance of getting one of his missiles to even come close are about 1,000,000-1. Hamas hasn’t “targeted” Dimona. They launched a drone which got within 20 miles of the plant before being shot down. That’s hardly launching a missile or even threatening the facility.
Really, is this the best Hasbara Central has to offer? You need to be sent back for retraining.
[Comment deleted; you are using the same IP adress as 5 other current commenters. Stop doing that. Use one handle & one IP address. If this continues all of you will be banned.]
Will you reinstate my comment and remove your libelous remark now that you’ve been shown to be wrong about your same-IP accusation?
@ OneIsrseli: No, but I’ll do you one better. For making the ludicrous claim that I’ve libelled you, I will moderate your comments until you can calm down and stop spewing inanities.
When I was born, Shimon Peres was 23 years old; a lifetime suffering a thief. A thief who matener the stolen weapon. A thief who will be mourned after his death. I, as a reward for many years lying, stealing and massacring the Palestinian people, I wish you long life, with knowledge of their status, to pay for their actions.
While, I agree that currently the military threat to Israel is minimal given power and capability of the Zahal and the internal problems of former confrontation states. However, much of that capability is based on a large and generous supply of U.S. money and some of our best weapons. It is my view that Israel’s semi-covert nuclear capability is central to that aid. Even many indigenous systems such as Iron Dome and Arrow involve much U.S. technology which requires the agreement of our government for it to be sold or given to Israel.
So how did this generous aid begin. In the early years of Israel the U.S. banned the sale of weapons to Israel. This changed in the Kennedy-Johnson years. At first sales for cash were allowed: Hawk missiles, M-48 tanks, and A-4 aircraft. Later the U.S. loaned money to Israel to buy F-4E aircraft, M-60 tanks, etc. It was only with the Yom Kippur War than massive multi-year aid packages (gifts) started. Why?
Well, Israel miscalculated and had stocked insufficient munitions to fight a long war. The Israel suffered heavy losses in aircraft and tanks in futile counter attacks in Saini. The 36th Division was reduced to a few tanks on the Golan. If it wasn’t for just a little bit of bad luck the Syrians would have pushed Israel off the Golan leaving northern Israel venerable. So why did Nixon (who wasn’t exactly pro-Jewish) come to the aid of Israel in such a massive way?
That’s right, Israel’s nuclear capability. Nixon saw Israel’s preparations to use the bomb as did the Russians. So to head off that possibility of actual nuclear use and the escalation that would ensue, Nixon sent Israel everything they needed to win the war with conventional weapons. Since that time an implicit deal has existed between the U.S. and Israel. Israel is not to openly declare as a nuclear state and in return the U.S. will provided enough aid to ensure Israel’s security in the convectional arena.
This why nuclear weapons are essential to Israel’s existence.
“Ben Gurion’s real goal in obtaining nukes was political. He wanted to ensure Israel would never have to negotiate away the gains it made on the battlefield. He wanted a weapon he could hold over the heads of any enemy, that would ensure he never had to renounce anything that was rightfully Israel’s (in his mind at least). ”
Richard, how do you know this?
Your thesis makes no sense. In order to be used as a “political” weapon, Israel would have to credibly or implicitly threaten its use during a negotiation, in the face of political, not military, pressure. This is illogical, and when was it used in such a fashion? Did nuclear capability have a part of the Camp David or Oslo accords? Negotiations are give and take. Israel surrendered land, in exchange for political and economic benefits. Of course there is always the implied military deterrent aspect, but that is the usual strategic value of an asset like that.
@ Yehuda: You mean it makes no sense to YOU. That’s different than what you said. Actually I’m about the publish a new piece on Peres in which I interview Avner Cohen, who knows a little bit more than you about Israel’s nuclear strategy. If anything, he says what I wrote here even stronger than I did. You ought to read Avner’s two books on Israel’s nuclear arsenal. They’re instructive.
Not to mention that there are policy analysts who’ve studied nuclear weapons not just in the Israeli context but among other nuclear powers and they find that nuclear weapons don’t increase stability or promote peace or even promote a nation’s defense. Rather, they promote rigidity, a refusal to innovate or consider new policy options.