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Atomic Power to Israel's Rescue: French-Israeli Nuclear Cooperation, 1949-1957
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Israel Studies 7.1 (2002) 104-138



Discussion of Israel's nuclear initiative between 1947 and 1957 inevitably involves analysis of the relationship with France that moved from congenial ambivalence to unwritten alliance, and then rose to far-reaching cooperation and exclusive friendship in some of the most sensitive areas of national interest. This "nuclear connection" was initially forged during the early the 1950s and peaked in 1956-1957.

This article will first examine France's development of nuclear research during the Fourth Republic (1946-1958) and its motives for embarking on high-level cooperation with a small fledgling country like Israel, even before France had developed its own nuclear weapons system. Second, the status of Israel's nuclear policy will be traced from its beginning in order to gain an appreciation of the importance of Israel's "French orientation" in its foreign and security policy, as well as in its own ultra-sensitive field of strategic nuclear research. Finally, in light of the vast quantity of material available to historians, the stages of French-Israeli nuclear cooperation will be explored against the commonly voiced charge that France's interest stemmed from its need to include Israel in an anti-Nasser coalition. That is, France's "nuclear" gift was to be a form of reimbursement for Israel's participation in the Suez War.

The Development of France's Nuclear Policy

In the beginning, nuclear research in France was closely associated with two distinguished scientists: Frederick Joliot-Curie and his wife Irene who was the daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, the discoverers of artificial radioactivity. In March 1939 Joliot-Curie, together with Hans von Halban and the Russian Jew, Lev (Leon) Kowarski, demonstrated the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction. In the same year, this team was joined by Jean-Francis Perrin, the man who would play the main role in the development of French nuclear research. Perrin, the son of Jean-Baptiste Perrin (1870-1942) a Noble Prize winner for physics, was appointed professor of nuclear physics at the prestigious College de France in 1946 .

On 16 June 1940, as France was about to fall under Nazi occupation, Halban and Kowarski were sent to Great Britain to safeguard the secrets of heavy water (both a coolant and moderator in nuclear reactors) that had been developed in France on the basis of a 1932 American discovery. Other French nuclear scientists, such as Pierre Ogine and Jules Geron, joined Halban and Kowarski during the war and traveled to Canada as a team to continue their research. There they came into contact with the "Manhattan Project." Last but not least to enter this group was Bertrand Goldschmidt, through marriage a member of the Rothschild family, and the scientist who would fulfill a major role in establishing the "nuclear connection" between France and Israel. By the end of the war other Jewish scientists joined this renowned pioneering group, namely, Leo Szilard, of Hungarian-American background; Jules Horowitz, who was born in Poland in 1922; and Moshe (Maurice) Sordin, a Yishuv (pre-state Jewish settlement in Palestine) émigré and graduate of the famous "Herzliya" High School in Tel-Aviv, and the son of the founder of the Athlit salt factory south of Haifa.

The national figure most involved in developing the "French atomic bomb" and the man who would be identified with the first detonation in February 1960 was Charles de Gaulle. "In a little room," wrote the journalist Pierre Péan, "tucked away at the end of a corridor in the French embassy in Ottawa, the idea of a French bomb was born on 11 July 1944 . . . At the close of his meeting with Geron, General de Gaulle turned to Goldschmidt and said, 'Thank you, now I understand exactly.' [De Gaulle] realized the role nuclear power would play in international relations. From this point on there would be two classes of countries—those who had the bomb and the others." In Israel the political figure first aware of this postwar hierarchy, and who would remain an unwavering supporter of Israel's atomic development, was David Ben-Gurion, who was a great admirer of Charles de Gaulle.

France's Atomic Energy...