Ben-Gurion: A Political Life - Shimon Peres (2011)
11. Defense of the Realm
Ben-Gurion was so brave that he didn’t fear being afraid. You need courage to fear. He didn’t hide it. I often heard expressions of very deep anxiety but also of faith that we’d overcome.
Before leaving the prime minister’s office for Sdeh Boker in December 1954, Ben-Gurion sought to ensure that things would function adequately in his absence. He blundered by announcing that Levi Eshkol was his preferred candidate for prime minister, apparently without ascertaining whether Eshkol was interested in the position. As it turned out, he was categorically not interested, and the party’s choice was Moshe Sharett, whom Ben-Gurion accepted without good grace. Sharett continued to hold the foreign ministry, while the key post of minister of defense was to be held by Pinhas Lavon who, as minister without portfolio, had filled in for Ben-Gurion several times in the past, including during a three-month vacation prior to his official departure.
Relations between these two senior ministers, Sharett and Lavon, were bad from the start, and they steadily worsened as Lavon adopted an extremely activist policy in response to Arab border infiltrations, in open and demeaning disregard of Sharett’s policy of moderation. The new IDF chief of staff, Moshe Dayan, whom Ben-Gurion had put in place before his departure, was himself an activist by outlook and temperament. But relations between him and the vain and suspicious Lavon soon deteriorated too. I was director-general of the defense ministry, and I soon fell out of Lavon’s good graces as well.
A precursor of things to come had already occurred while Ben-Gurion was on his pre-departure vacation. Infiltrators from across the Jordanian border murdered a woman and her two children on the night of October 12, 1954. This was the latest and one of the most heinous in a long series of attacks by Palestinian infiltrators from across the Jordanian border in the east and the Gazan border in the southwest, which were taking a serious toll in life and limb on farmers and villagers in the border areas. Nineteen Israeli civilians were killed by infiltrators in 1950, forty-eight in 1951, forty-two in 1952, and forty-four in 1953.
In response to this latest attack, the army’s crack Unit 101, under Major Ariel Sharon, attacked the Palestinian village of Qibya, in the West Bank. They briefly engaged Jordanian troops, who retreated, and then blew up dozens of houses in the village. Sharon and his men later swore they had believed the homes were empty. But in the light of dawn, seventy bodies were uncovered in the rubble, many of them women and children. Israel faced a wave of outrage from around the world. Ben-Gurion, back from his vacation, adopted the version that had been put out by Lavon, that the atrocity had been perpetrated by enraged Israeli border villagers and not by IDF troops, and he broadcast this on national radio. Sharett, who had been acting premier at the time but had not been told in advance of the planned reprisal, bridled at this ploy, even though it had been suggested by an official of his own ministry as a means of mitigating the international condemnation.
The episode that then took place, which was to poison Israeli politics for many years to come and to blight Ben-Gurion’s last years in office, grew out of the insalubrious relationships that now surrounded Lavon. A group of Egyptian Jews who had been formed into a spy network by agents of the IDF’s military intelligence were ordered in July 1954 to carry out firebombings of Western cultural centers in Cairo and Alexandria. The thinking behind this scheme was that the attacks would show that the government of the new prime minister, Gamal Abdel Nasser, was weak, and they would prompt the British government to rethink its recent decision, at Nasser’s behest, to withdraw its forces from the Suez Canal. The plot failed, and many of the spies were caught. Two were eventually hanged, and others were sentenced to long jail terms. Meir Max Bineth, an Israeli intelligence agent based in Egypt and linked to the network, was arrested too; he committed suicide in prison. Israelis were shocked and humiliated by the public trials in Cairo and the obvious foul-up that they exposed. But behind the scenes, sheltered by the military censor from the public gaze, a conflagration began to burn.
Who had given the order to set the bungled and hopelessly amateurish chain of provocations into motion? Binyamin Gibli, the head of military intelligence, claimed that he had been instructed to do so by Lavon. Lavon flatly denied it. (Dayan had been out of the country when the order was given.) Accusations of slander, forgery, and suborning of witnesses flew thick and fast between the two men and the camps that began to form around them, especially after Sharett, at Lavon’s demand, set up an ad hoc commission of inquiry to discover the truth.
The commission consisted of Yitzhak Olshan, a justice of the Supreme Court, and Yaakov Dori, the former IDF chief of staff. It heard evidence from all those involved, including, as was later claimed,* false, suborned, and doctored evidence. It failed to reach an unequivocal conclusion. “We find it impossible to say more than we are not convinced beyond all reasonable doubt that [Gibli] did not receive orders from the defense minister. At the same time, we are not convinced that the defense minister did give the orders attributed to him.” Lavon, in a paroxysm of fury, demanded justice and refused the suggestion of some of his Mapai colleagues that he quietly step down. Ben-Gurion was consulted, and he too voiced the view that Lavon would have to resign.
Lavon duly resigned, but planted a time bomb in his letter of resignation. “I reserve the right,” he wrote, “to bring the reasons for my resignation to the knowledge of the Party and of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of the Knesset.” The party duly rejected his resignation, whereupon he in turn demanded Gibli’s resignation—and mine too, for good measure. Now Dayan balked. If Lavon stayed, he told Sharett, everyone else would stay too. Lavon did finally resign. Ben-Gurion, importuned by party colleagues, agreed to return as minister of defense, serving under Prime Minister Sharett. “Defense and the army come before everything,” he wrote in his diary. Sharett cabled him at his kibbutz: “Admire your step as a model of noble citizenship and testimony to profound comradeship between us.” But the comradeship, it soon became clear, was not so profound. Nor was the Lavon Affair by any means over.
Ben-Gurion and Sharett quickly began to clash over the reprisals policy, as the raids into Israel intensified from both the West Bank and from the Gaza Strip. An Israeli raid against the Egyptian Army in Gaza in February 1955, again under Arik Sharon, resulted in thirty-eight Egyptians dead and dozens more wounded. Sharett had been assured in advance there would be low casualties on the other side. He professed himself “horrified.” There was no such reservation from Ben-Gurion. After another terror raid from Gaza in March, Ben-Gurion proposed that the IDF be ordered to conquer the Gaza Strip and drive the Egyptian Army out. He was voted down in a cabinet meeting, which further soured relations between him and the prime minister. Elections in the summer brought Ben-Gurion back as prime minister. Despite their deepening differences, and despite another showdown over another large-scale retaliation in Gaza, he insisted that Sharett serve as his foreign minister once again.
Both the domestic and diplomatic equations changed dramatically, however, in the fall of 1955, when Nasser announced a massive arms deal with Czechoslovakia. It was clear that this meant a wholesale shift of Egypt’s strategic orientation, toward the Soviet bloc. The Czechs were to supply Soviet-made jet fighters, bombers, tanks, armored personnel carriers, self-propelled guns, torpedo boats, and even six submarines. The deal would put the Egyptian military on an entirely different footing, far outclassing the IDF, unless Ben-Gurion could somehow find a source of modern military hardware for Israel too.
Egged on by Dayan, and before Egypt could acquire and absorb her new armaments, Ben-Gurion proposed a sweeping attack on the Egyptians in the Sinai, culminating in the capture of the Straits of Tiran, which Nasser had blocked to Israeli shipping. There was scant support among the ministers. President Eisenhower sent a close friend, Robert Anderson, as his personal peace envoy to the region, in the hope of brokering an Israel-Egypt deal and thus heading off Egypt’s defection to the Soviet camp. Ben-Gurion urged Anderson to bring about a direct meeting with Nasser. He would make offers, he promised, “that he hasn’t even thought of.” But the Egyptian leader declined. He did not want to end up like Abdullah, he told Anderson with candor.
Months of desultory diplomacy now followed between Washington and Jerusalem, conducted by Sharett and Ambassador Abba Eban, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to produce a defense agreement that Ben-Gurion could regard as an effective deterrent. As the months elapsed, his resolve hardened: If there were no diplomatic solution, there would have to be a military one.
I spent these months flying back and forth from Tel Aviv to Paris, assiduously building a relationship that was to supply us both with the arms that we so desperately needed and with the alliance that Ben-Gurion believed was vital. The French socialists under Guy Mollet, strong supporters of Israel, came to power in January 1956 at the head of a new coalition. Mollet became the prime minister. The minister of defense, Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury, a member of France’s Radical Party, favored cooperation with Israel in the context of France’s struggle with the FLN in Algeria, which was armed and financed by Nasser. Arms agreements signed during the spring and summer provided us with Mystère warplanes that were even better—in the hands of our pilots—than the Soviet MiGs. We also received French AMX tanks that were a match for the Soviet T-55s, as well as howitzers, mortars, and ammunition.
Ben-Gurion was skeptical at first about the French connection, though he let me pursue it without hindrance. The dalliance with France was contrary to the pronounced Anglo-Saxon orientation of virtually the entire top political echelon in Israel at that time. Golda, who grew up in the United States; Sharett, who studied in Britain; Dov Yosef, who was Canadian-born; Reuven Shiloah,* who maintained close professional contacts with senior American intelligence people—all of them were Anglo-Saxon by background and outlook. Sharett was totally Anglophile, with all the mannerisms of an English gentleman. Abba Eban, born in South Africa and educated in England, had a special status: He was considered a genius. They all had a deep contempt for Charles de Gaulle, which they had inherited from the British and the Americans. Both Roosevelt and Churchill disdained de Gaulle. Churchill famously quipped that “of all the crosses I have had to bear during this war, the heaviest has been the Cross of Lorraine [de Gaulle’s symbol of Free France].”
It was into this settled and fairly homogeneous policy-making group that a tsutsik (young imp) like me came along and announced that only France would save Israel! There was not another Francophile in the entire Israeli establishment. I had no preconceptions and no prejudices. I saw we were not going to get weapons from the Americans or from the British, and definitely not from the Russians. The Czech arms deal with Israel in 1948 had been a short-lived exception. I visited de Gaulle in his office, which he maintained in Paris along with his home in Colombey-les-Deux-Églises when he was out of power. He knew what we were doing, and he supported it.
Ben-Gurion still disdained him. When de Gaulle published his three-volume war memoirs, I tried to persuade Ben-Gurion to write a preface to the Hebrew edition, but he refused. I told him the memoirs were brilliant, as good as or better than Churchill’s. De Gaulle wrote it alone, without help. I dearly wanted this book to be translated into Hebrew, but the potential publishers said they would translate and publish it in Hebrew only if Ben-Gurion wrote a preface. Otherwise no one would read it. In the end, I wrote the preface to the first edition, and Ben-Gurion wrote a preface to the second—after he’d read it.
It took Ben-Gurion years to wean himself of this prejudice against France. Whenever I brought a French guest to meet him, Ben-Gurion would ask, “Why did you lose the war?” It was really embarrassing. Quite frankly, it irritated me a bit, and I finally said to him, “I’ve asked them and the answer is: The enemy did not cooperate!”
Ben-Gurion shifted the domestic political equation by shifting Sharett from the foreign ministry to the secretary-generalship of the Mapai Party. Golda Meir, who did not shrink from the idea of preemptive war, took over at the foreign ministry. In July 1956 Nasser announced that he was nationalizing the Suez Canal, prompting the French and the British to think seriously about using military force to remove him.
At a meeting that month with Bourgès-Maunoury and his generals, I was asked how long it would take the IDF to conquer all of Sinai. “Five to seven days,” I replied at once. They were taken aback; they seemed to assume we would need much longer. The follow-up question was even more dramatic: Would Israel be prepared to invade the Sinai in concert with a French-British attack on Egypt? Again without hesistating, I replied in the affirmative—subject, of course, to the confirmation of Ben-Gurion and the cabinet. As we walked out, Yosef Nahmias, the Israeli defense ministry envoy in Paris, whispered, “You deserve to be hanged.” He rightly said that I had no power or authority to offer either of those replies. I replied that I’d rather risk my neck than lose an opportunity like this. If I had responded otherwise, I argued, our entire relationship with France might have been compromised.
In September, Ben-Gurion sent Golda to head up a ministerial mission to Paris to discuss Israel’s defense needs. She was accompanied by transport minister Moshe Carmel, a general in the 1948 war and now leader of the Ahdut HaAvoda Party* (and a fluent French speaker), Dayan, and me.
As luck would have it, Mollet was tied up when we arrived and sent word that he would not be able to attend our talks. For Golda, who had been sour and skeptical all along, this proved that there was no deal in the offing, just my dreams and fantasies designed to captivate Ben-Gurion. I begged Mollet’s office to have him show up, at least for some of the meeting. Eventually he received Golda, which helped a little.
Christian Pineau, the foreign minister, who attended with Bourgès-Maunoury, delivered the most dour and somber picture of the situation. He spoke bleakly of the likely negative American reaction to an attack on Egypt and the even more negative—and possibly dangerous—Soviet reaction. He was a deeply sad man who, paradoxically, wrote children’s books in his spare time. He’d written a book about a bear with green feet that was different from all the other bears. People said it was an allegory for the Jewish people. His sadness was ammunition for Golda when she returned home. She reported that Mollet hadn’t shown up, Pineau was opposed, and we couldn’t rely just on Bourgès-Maunoury. She warned Ben-Gurion—behind my back—that I was misleading him. To her, everything I did was wrong. Luckily for me, Carmel and Dayan had been there too. Their more upbeat reports saved my credibility. But what really saved my credibility? The arms started arriving!
Now the idea of an Israeli attack serving as pretext for an Anglo-French action began to gain traction. Ben-Gurion did not like it at first, but gradually, as the talks with France intensified and the relationship burgeoned, he began to soften. The negotiations climaxed with an invitation, which I engineered, to Ben-Gurion to attend a secret summit conference in Sèvres, outside Paris, in October 1956.
We flew out from a military airfield, Ben-Gurion with a hat pulled low over his head and Dayan in dark glasses to conceal his famous eye patch. In the car and again at the foot of the gangway up to the plane, Ben-Gurion turned to me and said angrily, “Have you told them I’m not committed to anything? Are you sure they know I’m not committed?” He was determined that Israel not be taken for granted. He was determined too that his own eventual decision not be taken for granted, even by Dayan and me. He preferred, in the interests of the negotiation, that we not know what his position was.
On the first evening at Sèvres, the three French statesmen, Mollet, Pineau, and Bourgès-Maunoury, together with the French army chief of staff and other generals, gathered for an opening session with Ben-Gurion. They were plainly eager to get to know their prospective ally. “Monsieur le Premier Ministre,” said Mollet, “you’re the guest of honor, you open the discussion.” Ben-Gurion took his time. He thought deeply, and then looked up. “Mr. Prime Minister,” he said, “I would like you to explain to me when you in France stopped teaching Latin and went over to French.” An argument over French linguistics developed from there, and it went on the whole evening.
Mollet, with whom I’d grown quite close, couldn’t contain himself. “What’s this?” he whispered to me. “You don’t know the man,” I replied. “He’s leaving the negotiations to us. He’s not a merchant. You asked him to open the discussion, so he opened it on a subject that he feels is of extreme importance—and the whole evening went to hell!”
Ben-Gurion had no inferiority complex. He was a short man, but he looked tall. He was mostly bald, but he looked like he had a wavy shock of hair. When he walked into a room, there was no doubt at all that someone special had entered. In this particular instance, he didn’t want to open the negotiation. He wanted to be sure that he hadn’t invited himself to this party, but that he had been invited to it by the hosts. Even aboard the French plane to Sèvres, he kept saying, “Shimon, are you sure they’ve invited us? If you’re not sure, I’m not going.” That’s why he didn’t want to open the negotiations. You invited me, you open them.
“Better an open Suez Canal and a closed conflict than a closed Suez Canal and an open conflict,” Dayan famously proclaimed in the early 1970s.* This was the essence of Dayan’s thinking at Sèvres too, in the negotiations with both the French and the British. He said that Israeli forces would not go all the way to the canal. Dayan’s strategy was for our troops to parachute down at the Mitla Pass on the western side of Sinai but some thirty miles east of the canal. This dovetailed with Ben-Gurion’s broader political idea of separate wars “coordinated in time, not in mission.” Ben-Gurion was concerned that we not look like mercenaries for the French and British.
Our own war, the Sinai Campaign (in Hebrew, Mivtza Kadesh, or Operation Kadesh) had three trajectories:
1. To Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, because Ben-Gurion held that Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships was itself a casus belli.
2. To Gaza, because the fedayeen, the armed bands of Palestinians who infiltrated Israel, were centered there with Nasser’s funding and support.
3. To the Mitla Pass, to trigger a battle with Egypt in the Sinai so as to destroy the Soviet weaponry in the hands of the Egyptian Army.
The negotiations between France and Israel would have proceeded with the utmost smoothness and amity but for the fact that France was tied to Britain in its response to Nasser’s provocation in nationalizing the Suez Canal. The British could barely conceal their distaste at the prospect of colluding with Israel. They sent over their foreign secretary, Selwyn Lloyd, to take part in the conference, and he and Ben-Gurion fairly bristled at each other.
Lloyd’s first proposal was that Israel invade the Sinai and reach the Suez Canal; then Britain and France would issue an ultimatum to both sides to pull back. Egypt would refuse, and the two powers would attack her. Ben-Gurion rejected that out of hand. A major concern for him was the possibility of Israeli cities being bombed. He also feared Russia flying in “volunteers,” or even parachuting them down onto the battlefields to help the Egyptians. He wanted Britain and France to bomb the Egyptian military airfields within one day of the outbreak of war.
At this point Dayan weighed in with his Mitla Pass proposal. One advantage of it was that the force initially involved would not be too large, and the Egyptians might regard it as a major retaliation raid rather than the first stage of a full-fledged war. It was sufficient, on the other hand, to trigger the proposed Anglo-French ultimatum. Lloyd was dubious; he wanted “a real act of war.” The next day, not relying on Lloyd, Pineau took Dayan’s detailed proposal to Prime Minister Anthony Eden in London. Eden accepted it.
The following morning Dayan and I drove out to Sèvres, where Ben-Gurion had been staying throughout the conference, to see whether he would now give the final green light. He was sitting in the garden, outwardly calm. But we assumed that he had been wrestling with himself all night. He began asking us specific questions, from which we inferred that he was inclined to approve the plan.
Being a genius is a matter of character no less than of intellect. Of being unafraid to ask questions, to take new positions, to ignore conventions. And of being unafraid of fear. Ben-Gurion was so brave that he didn’t fear being afraid. You need courage to fear. He didn’t hide it. I often heard expressions of very deep anxiety, but also of faith that we’d overcome whatever obstacles were in our way.
Returning home, he convened the cabinet and received its approval. (Only the Mapam ministers voted against the war.) He didn’t lay out the detailed operational plans; he just said what the three goals were. And he explained the coordination with France and Britain. Until last night we didn’t have an agreement, he said. Now we’ve got an agreement, so you decide, yes or no. Prior to that moment, he had not felt it necessary to involve the whole cabinet. His proposal the year before, for the IDF to invade Sinai, capture Sharm el-Sheikh, and open the Straits of Tiran, was to have been a purely Israeli initiative and therefore required a cabinet decision at the planning stage. Now there was a war being planned by others that we could simply join. Ben-Gurion went to Sèvres with clean hands, because he hadn’t yet decided himself whether Israel should join in this war. He didn’t need the cabinet’s formal approval to go to Sèvres to discuss their war plans with France and Britain. After hearing what they had to say, when he returned to Israel he submitted the plan to the full cabinet for their approval.
Ben-Gurion had written in his diary on the last morning of the Sèvres conference, “I have weighed the situation, and if effective air measures are taken to protect us during the first day or two until the French and British bomb the Egyptian airfields, I think the operation is essential. The two powers … will try to eliminate Nasser [and] we will not face him alone.”
That is not quite the way things worked out. While the Israeli military action, which began on October 29, 1956, was a success on all counts—the Egyptian Army in the Sinai was smashed, the guns commanding the Straits of Tiran were spiked, and Gaza and all of Sinai were occupied by the IDF—the Anglo-French landings in the Canal Zone were slow and ran into resistance. Soviet threats and American pressure brought them to a peremptory and premature halt with their aims unachieved. The canal did not revert to Western control, and Nasser, instead of being deposed, emerged a hero from his confrontation with the two waning Great Powers. His military defeat at the hands of Israel was somewhat eclipsed.
Soviet threats against Israel were even more brutal than they were against France and Britain. “The Israeli government is criminally and irresponsibly playing with the fate of the world and with the fate of its own people,” Marshal Nikolai Bulganin, the Soviet premier and minister of defense, wrote to Ben-Gurion on November 5, 1956. “It is sowing hatred that places in question the very existence of Israel as a state … The Soviet government is at this moment taking steps to put an end to the war and restrain the aggressors.” The message was not immediately published. Two days later, in the Knesset, a euphoric Ben-Gurion congratulated the army for “the greatest and most splendid military operation in the chronicles of our people.” He pronounced the 1949 Armistice Agreement with Egypt dead and buried. In his message to a military victory ceremony at Sharm el-Sheikh, he wrote of the “Third Kingdom of Israel,” which extended to two little islands off the tip of Sinai.
Ben-Gurion did not seriously intend to remain in the Sinai, and he told the cabinet as much immediately after the fighting. Asked sometime later at a meeting in Kibbutz Negba why he had spoken publicly in such sweepingly euphoric terms, he explained that his motives were tactical, with an eye on the negotiations that were soon to begin over the terms and timetable of Israel’s withdrawal.
The euphoria, in any event, was swept away the next day by a UN General Assembly resolution demanding Israel’s withdrawal, and even more by a blunt message from President Eisenhower, who had just been reelected for a second term. Israel’s failure to withdraw, he wrote, would “impair the friendly collaboration between our two countries.” The United States threatened a cutoff of all funding to Israel, including Jewish philanthropy, possible eviction of Israel from the UN, and, most ominous in Ben-Gurion’s mind, nonintervention in the event of an attack by Soviet “volunteers.” The volunteers were more virtual than real, but they cast a shadow of fear over the world and brought about Ben-Gurion’s quick retreat. In his broadcast to the nation, he read from Bulganin’s and Eisenhower’s letters and from his replies. He assured the army that “there is no power in the world that can reverse your great victory … Israel after the Sinai Campaign will never be the same again.”
While Israel was forced out of Sinai, and later out of Gaza too, in return for the deployment of a UN force along the border and less-than-ironclad assurances from the international community of free passage in the Straits of Tiran, Ben-Gurion’s bitter boast to the soldiers turned out to be true. Israel after 1956 was not the same country, neither in the eyes of its enemies nor in its own eyes. The military victory ushered in a decade of consolidation and development. The country enjoyed quiet along its borders and remarkable economic growth and political success, especially among the emerging nations of Africa and Asia, many of which forged strong ties with the Jewish state.
An informal conversation at the Sèvres conference that did not include the British focused on our attempts over the previous several years to build up a nuclear capacity and our earnest desire that France, a nuclear power, help us do so. It’s awkward for me to say so, but although I was and remain a faithful follower of Ben-Gurion, in certain things he listened to me. One example was our nuclear program. As with the outreach to the French, he was equivocal at first, but then he let me run with it. He always gave me every encouragement to strike out on bold and unconventional paths.
Israel’s nuclear aspirations first surfaced back in 1949, when someone approached Ben-Gurion with a vague idea of developing atomic energy. At that stage Ben-Gurion and Professor Ernst David Bergmann, his scientific adviser, wanted to create nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, to desalinate water. It started from that. Various exotic ideas were raised before I came on the scene. Some people claimed, for instance, that the Tiberias hot springs were radioactive water. Some said that there was uranium in the potash extracted at the Dead Sea. Some said that in Norway they were cutting down trees using nuclear energy. All that sort of thing excited people, and Bergmann’s approach was that everything was possible. When I entered the picture, I said, Sorry, I don’t know much about these various ideas, but we need to be more realistic.
By then, the first enterprise I had set up, working initially from the United States, was Israel Aircraft Industries Ltd., formally incorporated in 1953. In that, too, Ben-Gurion gave me a free hand. To this day I don’t understand how he let me just forge ahead. If I have any criticism of him, it’s over the authority he vested in me! In his place I wouldn’t have done it.
The complicated relationship between Weizmann and Ben-Gurion impinged on the nuclear debate that now raged within the Israeli political and scientific elite. The Weizmann Institute of Science at Rehovot, which was very much Dr. Weizmann’s brainchild and was under his strong influence, was intended to give Israel a leading role in the scientific world. Weizmann himself, of course, was an eminent scientist whose work for the British government in both world wars is well known. Ben-Gurion believed Israel needed to harness science to secure its existence. Weizmann did not disagree; he was no pacifist. But the Weizmann Institute didn’t want that to be the character or main focus of its work.
There was a silent battle that centered on the person of Ernst David Bergmann. When he set up the institute in the 1930s, Weizmann asked Albert Einstein to recommend a brilliant chemist, and Einstein recommended Bergmann, who was without a doubt a genius. At a certain point Bergmann transferred from the institute to the defense ministry, where he became chief scientific adviser and a close aide to Ben-Gurion. He was the first and almost the only top-grade scientist to make that move. It wasn’t I who brought him over; nor was his move directly connected to the atomic program. He was attracted by Ben-Gurion. Later, he helped to set up Israel’s Atomic Energy Authoritiy; Rafael, the weapons research company; and many other vital components of the defense complex. He became an enthusiastic bitchonist (defense advocate).
The Weizmann Institute, on the other hand, wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about defense. In fact, the institute became a center of opposition to Dimona.* This didn’t come from Israel Dostrovsky,† the institute’s top chemist, but from Meyer Weisgal, Weizmann’s longtime aide and amanuensis, who effectively maintained the institute. He was the strongman there, and he came out against Dimona and the whole nuclear effort, against all our experiments and attempts to make progress. Amos de Shalit, a nuclear physicist and the director of the institute, felt the same way. They were very cold toward us, and they didn’t help at all. But when it all succeeded and we had set up the reactor in Dimona, Amos convened a meeting of scientists and said they needed to ask my forgiveness, because they’d said nothing would come of it, that it was all my fantastic dreams.
But in fact I’d had the support I needed, and that came from Ben-Gurion himself. I could enter his office freely when I had something to ask him, tell him, or discuss with him. As director-general of the defense ministry, I was in Tel Aviv most of the time, dealing with defense business. I would go up to Jerusalem midweek, when I needed to see him. He sat with me more than with the older party people of his own generation, which of course added to their dislike of me. His conversation with them was more formal. With us younger fellows he was completely free.
But I also felt the tension when I was in a room with him. And alongside that tension there was a sort of festive atmosphere, a feeling that I had entered a historic space. Ben-Gurion’s presence, wherever he was, created that atmosphere.
It wasn’t just I who was conscious of it. Everyone was, except perhaps Teddy Kollek, but that was Teddy’s personality.* And he wasn’t totally captivated by Ben-Gurion like the rest of us. He also flirted with Sharett and the doves. He was one of a kind.
Ben-Gurion didn’t really open up to us, his close aides. I never knew until after his death how hard he fought for me, how many people kept demanding that he fire me. He never said a word to me, apart from once or twice saying, “Try to be nicer to Golda.” In the matter of Dimona, they drove him mad! They said I was irresponsible. That it was a bluff and not to be taken seriously. That I was a fantasizer. He didn’t talk about this to my face, but behind my back he was defending me.
When I started working for him, I was a young man of twenty-four. When I became director-general of the defense ministry, in 1952, I was twenty-nine. At that time Yigael Yadin said to Ben-Gurion, right in front of me, “How could you appoint him to such a job?!” Of course, Yigael himself had been only thirty-two when Ben-Gurion named him chief of staff of the IDF in 1949. But I suppose that at that age, every year makes a difference. And apart from that, he was already a general!
Yigael wasn’t actually aware of the controversy that arose over his own appointment. He had no real field experience. He had never commanded in combat. But Ben-Gurion had stood up for him, just as he later stood up for me. Ben-Gurion appointed him first and foremost because he was a brilliant man. In addition to that, he was an archaeologist and knew the Bible. And he spoke beautifully. Seriously, though, he had one overridingly positive attribute: he was not part of any party or faction—not the Jewish Brigade, not Siah Bet. Also, he never voiced one word of criticism of Ben-Gurion behind his back. To his face, at cabinet and staff meetings, he would attack him furiously. This was exactly the opposite of other people, who would extol him to his face and whisper disloyalties behind his back.
Why did Ben-Gurion take to me? Probably because he found in me, more than in others, a certain quality of daring. Even in the matter of Dimona, he never gave me an explicit order. He knew what I was doing, and he let me get on with it. It was the same regarding negotiating with France. I didn’t know French. I didn’t know France. I wasn’t a military man. But he let me go anyway, against the advice of all his old friends and his own gut feelings. Why? Because he saw that my early forays had produced results.
When I returned from trips, I would sit with Ben-Gurion for an hour, and he would eagerly drink in my impressions. People didn’t know what we were talking about, and some thought I was bewitching him, telling him whom to favor and whom to reject. It was all baseless. He wasn’t like that; he wasn’t that kind of person.
If I hadn’t brought results, my various detractors would have had my head! But I managed to win the French over and to break the embargo on the weapons we so desperately needed. A youngster like me comes along, the entire establishment says that what I want to do is a waste of time and that I’m talking rubbish, and he lets me do it anyway! I’m saying this to Ben-Gurion’s credit, not mine. It wasn’t because I was a genius, but because I was the most daring of the people around him.
I knew that if I erred through daring, he would forgive me. But if I erred because I lied, I’d be out on the spot. That was his immutable rule. If you lie once, you’re out. If you err once while trying to do the right thing, it’s okay to keep trying, and to keep erring.
The same thing happened again later, not with France this time but with Germany, when, in the late 1950s, I was engaged in negotiations over a secret deal in which Germany would supply Israel with arms, gratis. Ben-Gurion had already made the fateful decision, in the early part of the decade, to accept reparations from Germany. And so in 1957, with Ben-Gurion’s approval, I went to the German defense minister, Franz-Josef Strauss, to negotiate an arms deal that was a form of reparations.
I said to Strauss as I said to Ben-Gurion: The Americans give us money and the French sell us arms; Germany must give us arms without money. That seemed natural to me. But it was hard for me, going to Germany. I felt physically ill the first time I went there. Everything brought to mind the war years, the police uniforms in particular. But I was there to assist in the defense of Israel. Ben-Gurion once said that if you put all other values on one side of the scale and defense on the other, defense wins. If you are killed, your human rights die with you. The first priority, therefore, is to defend and protect life.
When I came back home, there was a storm of protest and debate that echoed the controversy over reparations earlier in the decade. How were we to relate to the new Federal Republic of Germany, the sucesssor to the Third Reich? Ben-Gurion had a powerful moral argument on his side: Was the embargo that the nations of the world were imposing on us moral? With Germany’s help, Israel was overcoming that embargo. Much later, when Strauss came to Israel, Ben-Gurion was totally supportive of me. There were demonstrations outside my home: “Peres und Strauss, heraus!” (Peres and Strauss, out!) The left and the right both opposed the agreement with Germany. But Ben-Gurion purposefully announced that he would like to meet with Strauss. And when he next visited Paris, I asked Strauss to come to France and meet with him.
Because the deal with Germany, like the deal with France for arms and nuclear assistance, involved my working intimately with Ben-Gurion—and often pitted me against others in his cabinet—it seems fitting to conclude this chapter with a personal exchange that addresses my own relationship with Ben-Gurion, as well as his style of leadership.
DAVID LANDAU: Did Ben-Gurion give Dayan the same freedom that he gave you? And as a consequence, did the reprisal raids extend beyond what he intended?
SHIMON PERES: He stopped Dayan many times. He said no many times. The idea behind the reprisals was to hit the Jordanians and the Egyptians so that they in turn would rein in the fedayeen based in their territory: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. During a reprisal raid on Kalkilya, on October 10, 1956, the Jordanian Army surrounded some sixty of our soldiers. We sent in tanks. That same morning at dawn, the British chargé d’affaires knocked on Ben-Gurion’s door and said, I want to remind you of our defense treaty with Jordan. If you attack Jordan, we will intervene. There were rumors at the time that we intended a large-scale attack on Jordan. But in fact, our moves were camouflage for the preparations for our imminent attack on Egypt, in concert with France and Britain. We had no intention of mounting a large-scale attack on Jordan.
In general, Ben-Gurion deeply respected Dayan. Dayan and I were like two colts galloping in the field.
DAVID LANDAU: Despite your enormous admiration of him, did you ever find yourself, in private, critical of Ben-Gurion’s policies?
SHIMON PERES: No!
DAVID LANDAU: That’s almost impossible. You’re a critical person by nature. You couldn’t have abnegated your entire personality. Looking back, can you not recall anything that you had reservations about, but kept silent about?
SHIMON PERES: In minor matters, maybe yes. But not in the major issues. I became a Ben-Gurionist before I met him. I knew him from reading his speeches. I said to myself, Here’s a man who speaks the truth. I wasn’t impressed by Communism, or by Siah Bet, or by shleimut haaretz [the integrity of the biblical Greater Israel]. I felt that the people affiliated with these movements didn’t have the ability or the courage to see the truth.
DAVID LANDAU: Did Ben-Gurion demand total obedience? Or would he accept criticism? And from a youngster like you?
SHIMON PERES: Of course he could accept criticism. There were many moments of lighthearted banter between us. I would joke at his expense; he wouldn’t care.
DAVID LANDAU: That’s different from criticism.
SHIMON PERES: It’s true that he lacked a sense of humor. He had no time for such luxuries. One longtime Labor activist, Akiva Govrin, used to tell jokes all the time. Once he said to Ben-Gurion, People say you don’t like jokes, you don’t understand them.
BEN-GURION: Why would they say that?
GOVRIN: Let me tell you a joke.
BEN-GURION: Please do.
GOVRIN: You and Begin were traveling together from Tel Aviv to Haifa—
GOVRIN: I told you, it’s a joke.
BEN-GURION: Okay. So what happened?
GOVRIN: You were driving, and Begin was sitting next to you. And you said to Begin: Ich vel fyiren und du vest fyfen. [I’ll drive and you whistle.]
BEN-GURION: Lies and falsehoods!! There was never such a thing! They’ve made it up! It’s baseless!
DAVID LANDAU: Did you ever hear him express regret over anything?
SHIMON PERES: I don’t think so. His was an intellect that could not live with doubt. Five minutes after reading something—he’s got an opinion about it! But he didn’t demand the discipline of obedience. When he didn’t like something, he ignored you. If you were in his bad graces and he met you in the corridor, he would say, “What are you doing here?”
I was usually the victim, and usually completely innocent, of his perceived favoritism. Once Golda decided to attend a meeting of the International Labor Organization. The cabinet gave its formal approval, as required. A few days later she came by to take her leave of the prime minister.
BEN-GURION (looking up from his writing): Yes, you’re traveling. To where?
(She was insulted that he’d forgotten. She reminded him.)
BEN-GURION: How are you flying?
GOLDA: El Al to Paris.
GOLDA: Tomorrow morning.
BEN-GURION: What time?
BEN-GURION: Shimon will be on that plane too.
Golda was extremely insulted. Not only had he forgotten her cabinet-approved trip, but he remembered all the details of my trip. The point was, of course, that for him defense was more important than anything else. That’s why he knew all the details of my trip. It wasn’t that Shimon was more important to him than Golda.
* See this page-this page.
* Shiloah (1909-59) was the first director of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, from 1949 to 1952. He was then assigned to the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C.
* Ahdut HaAvoda had by this time split from Mapam and was a separate party.
* As defense minister under Golda Meir in the early 1970s, Dayan proposed an interim agreement with Egypt, under which the IDF would withdraw from the Suez Canal Zone and Egypt would reopen the waterway, shut since the 1967 war. His proposal was not taken up.
* A city in the Negev, Dimona is the site of Israel’s major nuclear reactor and the metonym for the entire nuclear program.
* Teddy Kollek (1911-2007) was a Viennese-born kibbutznik and aide to Ben-Gurion who later became mayor of Jerusalem, a post he held for close to a quarter of a century.
† Dostrovsky succeeded Bergmann as head of the Israel Atomic Energy Authority in 1965.