New book shows peacemaker Peres's nuclear role

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel and France once made a secret deal to produce a nuclear bomb together, according to a new biography of Israeli elder statesman Shimon Peres.

Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres speaks to the media before entering the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem April 15, 2007. REUTERS/David Silverman/Pool (JERUSALEM)

The deal was later cancelled, but the disclosure in the book by Israeli historian Michael Bar-Zohar sheds new light on the depth of France’s involvement in making Israel the Middle East’s sole atomic power.

Bar-Zohar told Reuters his information came from recently released documents from Israeli and French government archives relating to the key role Peres, now 83, played in launching Israel’s nuclear project more than half a century ago.

Peres, a deputy premier in Israel’s current government and a candidate for the ceremonial job of state president, is best known abroad for sharing a Nobel peace prize for a 1993 interim peace deal with Palestinians which he engineered.

But the book divulges new details of how the Polish-born politician launched his career with less peaceful goals in mind: as a behind-the-scenes architect of Israel’s military might, securing weapons secretly and buying an atomic reactor from France.

The French embassy in Tel Aviv did not respond to requests from Reuters for comment.

Experts believe Israel has used the Dimona reactor it built with French help in the 1960s to produce as many as 200 nuclear warheads. Israel neither confirms nor denies it has atomic weapons, saying only it will not be the first country to introduce them to the Middle East.

The 500-page “Shimon Peres - The Biography”, an English language edition of a Hebrew original which was recently released by Random House, recounts some new details of Peres’s secret talks with Paris to seal the reactor deal.

The most significant, experts say, is a secret agreement Peres signed in 1957 with then French Prime Minister Maurice Bourges-Maunoury in Paris, several months after the deal for the reactor was concluded.

“It stated in so many words that the two nations would cooperate in research and production of nuclear weapons,” the book says.


France ultimately scrapped that agreement several years later under the weight of enormous U.S. diplomatic pressure for it to cease its nuclear cooperation with Israel.

Still, experts find some historical significance in the mere fact the pact was made.

“That they (the French) were ready to cooperate (with Israel) in the development of nuclear weapons is something very, very intimate in a political, diplomatic sense,” said Avner Cohen, author of a 1998 book on the birth of Israel’s nuclear programme.

“They were very deeply involved,” he said. “The irony is of course that France in those days did what it did, and France of today is trying to prevent Iran from obtaining it (a nuclear potential).”

The book goes on to discuss how Peres persevered against Israeli leaders such as Golda Meir who objected to launching a nuclear programme, fearing the wrath of the West at a time when most refused to sell Israel weapons.

France, which sold Israel its first jet warplanes, was closer to Israel than most of the West. Some French officials identified with the Jewish state’s conflict with the Arabs at that time, as France was battling an armed revolt against its rule in Algeria.

A veteran writer and former lawmaker for the left-leaning Labour party once headed by Peres, Bar-Zohar said Peres had asked him to write the biography, and agreed to its publication without being shown an advance copy. Peres has praised the book and its author.

The volume goes into detail about Peres’s chequered political career which he began as a young aide to Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

Peres has lately been mentioned as a possible successor to Ehud Olmert if a political crisis forces the Israeli prime minister to resign over a report criticising his handling of a war in Lebanon last year.

But he actually lost half a dozen electoral bids for prime minister, along with a parliamentary vote in which he failed to become Israel’s president. He served as prime minister in a power-sharing deal with right-wingers in 1984.

“A great statesman but mediocre politician is how I sum him up,” Bar-Zohar said.

Peres famously criticised an Israeli air strike that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 -- an attack the Israeli public applauded.

Many Israelis also recall one of his most embarrassing moments, when he responded to an attack at a Labour Party convention by yelling into the microphone: “What am I, a loser?” only to reel from the shouted reply from the crowd: “Yes.”

After finally becoming prime minister for a second time, after a right-wing Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, Peres dismissed his advisers’ pleas to call an early election.

Worried about being accused of capitalising on a national tragedy, he ignored his strong showing in opinion polls, and waited.

The following year, he was defeated at the polls by right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu after a series of Palestinian suicide bombings that led many Israelis to question the wisdom of the interim peace deals Peres championed.

“That was a fateful mistake that he made,” Bar-Zohar said.