A strategic alliance with Israel

On atomic affairs, the Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique (CEA, French Atomic Energy Commission) did not have many partners to turn to in the 1950s. The Americans did not want to give away their secrets, under the McMahon Act. As for their British allies, they were linked to the agreements signed with Washington. Germany or Italy were, of course, still impossible at this time.

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As told by Philippe Wodka-Gallien in the book A Sword for Peace and Liberty Volume 1 Force de frappe – The French Nuclear Strike Force and the First Cold War 1945-1990, how the French ended up liaising with Israeli scientists is outlined in the book The President and the Bomb, by Jean Guisnel (a historian and journalist who was expert in defence matters) and Bruno Tertrais (a member of the Parisian think tank Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique). In their book, they state that a strategic alliance with Tel Aviv made sense. Paris shared the same hostility as Israel towards Nasser, the Egyptian leader who helped the FLN national movement in Algeria in a war against the Fourth Republic. Backed by the sea, in a tricky strategic position, Israel needed an ally in the face of the hostility of its neighbours.

The story of how France helped Israel to build the Dimona nuclear power plant (and then imposed an arms embargo on Tel Aviv)
Inside the MD620 Dassault factory near Bordeaux. Teams of Israeli engineers and technicians went to France to learn about the manufacturing processes of the missile. (Dassault Aviation)

Agreement to build a nuclear power plant in Israel

Jacques Soustelle had an important role at the highest level of the French administration in 1959, being appointed Minister Delegate (de facto Deputy Prime Minister) to Prime Minister Michel Debré. In this position, Soustelle was in charge of nuclear affairs, and he worked hard to develop relations with Israel. A Gaullist from the start (he joined France Libre in July 1940), he was also the president of the France-Israel Alliance, an association he founded in 1956.

The foundations of this cooperation were laid from 17–19 June 1956 at the Château de Vemars in the suburbs of Paris. Around the table were Abel Thomas, Chief of Staff to Maurice Bourguès-Maunoury, the French Minister of Defence; Pierre Boursicot, head of the French secret service; General Maurice Challe, Chief of the Defence Staff; and the Israelis Moshe Dayan, Shimon Peres and Yehoshafat Harkabi, of Israel’s military intelligence.

Once the groundwork had been done, Guy Mollet, President of the Council, and Defence Minister Bourguès-Maunoury were in Sèvres on 22 July to welcome their Israeli counterparts. During talks in this charming suburban town to the west of Paris, which was chosen for its discretion, Mollet and Bourguès- Maunoury agreed to build a nuclear power plant in Israel. The agreement was so secret that nothing was consigned to paper, but the summit of Sèvres is now part of the shared history of the two nations.

The story of how France helped Israel to build the Dimona nuclear power plant (and then imposed an arms embargo on Tel Aviv)
Negev Nuclear power plant at Dimona, photographed by American reconnaissance satellite KH-4 CORONA, 1968-11-11.

The Dimona nuclear power plant

Shimon Peres later signed a contract with Saint-Gobain in October 1957 for the plant to be located at Dimona in southern Israel. The CEA, under the direction of Pierre Guillaumat, was part of the project. Located in the heart of the Negev desert, it was intended that the plant would not attract curiosity, it being officially designated a textile factory. However, designed on the same model as the Marcoule nuclear power plant in France, Dimona was built to be able to produce plutonium.

The work was carried out under the auspices of companies specially chosen by the CEA whose names could not give any hint of the reality of their profession. The construction was entrusted to the Societé Alsacienne de Construction Mécanique (SACM), which later became the Financing and Business Study Company (SEFE). The reactor was entrusted to the Société Industrielle d’Etude et de Construction Chimique, a nominee of Saint-Gobain.

More than 300 French people were working on site in the Negev desert. Many of them moved to Israel with their families, which provided a Gallic hint to the city of Beer-Sheva, 13km to the east of the site. French could be heard spoken in the city’s streets, while local restaurants adapted menus from Paris and provided traditional French cooking.

The story of how France helped Israel to build the Dimona nuclear power plant (and then imposed an arms embargo on Tel Aviv)
A test of the MD-620 tactical ballistic missile at Ile du Levant, off the French Riviera. Dassault was awarded the development of the missile for Israel with the official support of the government. (Dassault Aviation)

French arms and French arms embargo

Such details aroused the suspicions of the CIA, which directed U-2 spy planes to fly over the area to discover just what was going on. Years later, in 1986, Mordechaï Vanunu, an engineer from Dimona, caused irreparable damage to the project, providing the Sunday Times in London with pictures revealing the installations at the site. Subsequently captured by Israeli agents, Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was released on probation in 2004, with a ban on him meeting journalists.

As work on the Dimona site was being carried out, General de Gaulle reassured Israel about France’s commitment to the project. The strategic relationship between the countries was accompanied by the delivery of French arms: first Ouragan fighters, Mystères, then Mirage IIIs and above all MD-620 missiles, a strategic weapon specifically manufactured by Dassault for Israel.

Matters then began to turn sour. Just after the Six-Day War, President de Gaulle decreed an arms embargo, an opportunity for France to restore Arab diplomacy. The Mirage V ordered by Israel was not delivered, instead being donated to the French Air Force. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing maintained terrible relations with Israel in the 1970s.

Operation Opera

The story of how France helped Israel to build the Dimona nuclear power plant (and then imposed an arms embargo on Tel Aviv)
A Jericho launcher just after lift-off from the Palmachin range, southwest of Tel-Aviv. The Israeli ballistic missile was a direct evolution of the French technology developed by Dassault for Israel. (IAI)

In reaction, the Israelis turned to the US and built a home defence industry that is today one of the most efficient in the world, notably in electronics and later in drones.

France then quickly gave Israel the instruments of autonomy. However, Franco-Israeli relations suffer greatly when France delivered a nuclear complex to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In response, on 7 June 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin approved the launch of Operation Opera, during which F-15s and F-16s from Heyl Ha’Avir head for Al-Tuwaitha south of Baghdad and destroyed the Osirak reactor in a daring raid.

France had to wait for the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy in the early 2000s for an official warming of relations with Israel. Meanwhile, the world had changed, and Israel signed a peace agreement with Jordan. Alain Juppé, several times Minister of Foreign Affairs and then Prime Minister under Jacques Chirac in 1986, precisely outlined the importance of Israel to France: “For us the security of Israel is sacred.” He was speaking in 2018 in the rooms of Quai d’Orsay, at the heart of French diplomacy, in a TV programme on the Parliamentary Channel.

A Sword for Peace and Liberty Volume 1 Force de frappe – The French Nuclear Strike Force and the First Cold War 1945-1990 is published by Helion & Company and is available to order here.

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