September 30, 1957
French Prime Minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury backdates to today his signature on a letter granting Israel’s request for France’s cooperation in building a heavy-water nuclear reactor and reprocessing facility. He actually signs the letter Oct. 1, the same day he is voted out of office, but he uses the previous day’s date to ensure the validity of his approval. Although the official agreement between the countries emphasizes the reactor’s peaceful power-generating purposes, the project off the books is meant to facilitate weapons programs for both nations.
Knowing that Israel would always be outnumbered by its Arab neighbors, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion focused by the mid-1950s on developing a nuclear weapons capability. Under the U.S. Atoms for Peace Initiative, Israel signed an agreement for the United States to provide it with a small research reactor with guarantees to limit the technology to peaceful uses, but because the reactor would not provide a path to a military capability, Israel turned instead to France. Shimon Peres, then the director-general of the Defense Ministry, led the work toward a deal with France.
France did not pursue its own weapons program until the 1956 Suez Crisis, when a Soviet threat to use nuclear weapons if France, Britain and Israel didn’t withdraw from Egyptian territory emphasized the French vulnerability without a nuclear deterrent. France decided to become a nuclear-armed power, opening the door for Peres to persuade the French to help Israel build its secret nuclear facility at Dimona in the Negev.
Although Israel is widely believed to have nuclear weapons, it has never officially acknowledged their existence.