Israeli Nuclear Program Pioneered by Shimon Peres

In December 1995, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres drew world headlines for his casual remark to a group of Israeli journalists in Tel Aviv: “Give me peace and we will give up the nuclear program–this is the whole story.” Though the media heralded this announcement, it reflected nothing more than longstanding policy. For years, Israel has said that it would negotiate the establishment of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East after the establishment of lasting peace. Shimon Peres has told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Israel would be willing to negotiate the signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty within two years after the establishment of “regional peace.”

But Peres has never said what such a peace would include. He has preferred ambiguity in this and much else in Israel’s nuclear diplomacy. In fact, it was Peres who came up with Israel’s most often repeated nuclear declaration. At a April 1963 meeting in the White House, Peres responded to President John F. Kennedy’s questions about Israel’s nuclear program by saying: “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.” Two years later, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol elevated Peres’s words to Israel’s official nuclear line.

In 1953, at age 30, Shimon Peres was appointed by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to become Director-General of the Ministry of Defense. Within three years, Peres had laid the foundation for Israel’s nuclear weapon program. He picked France as the major supplier, arranged the sale of a nuclear reactor, and spent the next decade overseeing the construction of the Dimona nuclear weapon production complex.

In his memoirs, “Battling for Peace,” Peres describes his nuclear accomplishments leading up to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war: “My contribution during that dramatic period was something that I still cannot write about openly for reasons of state security. After Dayan was appointed defense minister I submitted to him a certain proposal which … would have deterred the Arabs and prevented the war.” Peres now says that Israel has come a long way from a young country that needed Dimona to deter war to “a strong country on the brink of peace.” He credits Israel’s early investment in Dimona as responsible for the Arab world’s later steps toward peace, including Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s decision to come to Jerusalem in 1977.