Shimon Peres marked his greatest achievement in a long, and impressive life, full of ups and downs, at the age of 33. If he was a copywriter, he could have summed it up proudly in one spot-on sentence, paraphrased from Herzl: In Sèvres, I established Dimona and ensured the future of the State of Israel.
Dimona, beginning in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, saw the building of the "textile factory" - the nuclear reactor in which, according to foreign reports, Israel produces fissile materials - uranium and plutonium - for its arsenal of nuclear weapons. According to these reports, these weapons were, and remain, the central factor deterring Arab states and Iran from fulfilling their fantasies of eliminating Israel on the battlefield.
Sèvres is a suburb of Paris and the site of a villa in which the leaders of Israel (David Ben-Gurion, IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, Peres and others), France and senior British officials convened on October 21, 1956. Over two days of discussions, they planned the operational details and the political cover for their plot against Gamal Abdel Nasser's Egypt. About a week later they launched the plan known by many names: Operation Musketeer, the Suez War, the Kadesh Operation or the Sinai War.
The war ended in a diplomatic and propaganda victory for Nasser and diplomatic defeats for France and Britain, which witnessed the beginning of the end of their reigns as colonial powers. Israel marked a number of diplomatic and military achievements during the war. It routed the Egyptian Army, opened the blockade of Eilat and gained esteem in the eyes of the West. However, the war was also seen as carrying the rotten stench of Western colonialism.
Perhaps more important than all of the other achievements, less than a year after the war, France, which at the time was at the end of the Fourth Republic era, agreed to sell Israel a nuclear reactor and to provide the Jewish state with all of the knowhow, equipment, material and manpower required for the project.
The vision to make Israel a scientific and technological power came from prime minister David Ben-Gurion. The scientific expertise came from Prof. Ernst David Bergman, the director of the Atomic Energy Commission. The execution, however, was entirely Shimon Peres’s doing. He then served as the director- general of the Defense Ministry and, together with Dayan and some of the Old Man’s other protegés (Asher Ben Natan, Teddy Kollek, Yitzhak Navon), pushed for the diplomatic and military alliance with France that lasted six or seven years.
In that same villa in Sèvres, after the British delegates left the meeting, the Israelis and French were alone. They raised a toast to the coming operation. Peres took the opportunity to express his hope that France would also provide Israel with a nuclear reactor. There was no signed agreement at that time and it is doubtful that there was even an informal agreement.
However, in that same meeting, the seeds of France’s willingness to consider the Israeli request were sown.
Some 11 months later, in September 1957, Peres found himself once again in Paris, then his favorite city, and he signed two agreements that turned Israel into the world’s sixth nuclear power, according to foreign sources.
Peres not only signed these agreements, he “pulled a fast one” with his friend, former French prime minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury.
The previous day, Bourgès- Maunoury’s government had fallen in a National Assembly vote of no confidence and he was no longer authorized to sign the agreements to provide Israel with the nuclear reactor. Peres convinced him to falsely write the previous day’s date. Peres would later say with a smile, “What’s 24 hours between friends.”
Some three years later Peres was the proud father, while hundreds of French technicians and engineers completed construction on the reactor.
Five years later, prior to the Six Day War, Israel had, according to foreign reports, its first nuclear bomb.
Since then, and up until his death, Israel’s enemies saw Peres as the architect of the program that, in their view, gave Israel the ultimate strategic deterrence and a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.
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