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Digital Archive International History Declassified

September 02, 1992


This document was made possible with support from the Leon Levy Foundation

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    Avraham Hermoni served as senior technical director of the Israeli nuclear weapons program. This summary reflects the combined content of two long interviews Avner Cohen conducted with Hermoni in August and September 1992. This transcript is not the taped interview’s raw minutes; rather, it is Hermoni’s own edited and approved account of the interview, restructured by him in the form of twelve questions and answers, based upon the raw transcript of the original taped interview. Hermoni recounts the relationship between the Israeli government, the IDF, and the Weapons Development Authority (RAFAEL) during the development of Israel's nuclear capability.
    "Summary of Interview with Avraham Hermoni by Avner Cohen" September 02, 1992, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, From the personal collection of Avner Cohen.
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Summary of Interview with Professor Avraham Hermoni[1]:

The interview took place in Hermoni’s home in Savyon, Israel on 2 September 1992.

What was David Ernst Bergman’s place within the framework of RAFAEL[2]?

In the years before the establishment of RAFAEL [pre-1958], in the days of HEMED[3] and EMET[4], [Ernest David] Bergman[5] was the organization’s scientific director. You can say that we were all his students. Bergman reviewed each scientific paper we wrote, and he would always tell us what needed to be fixed. Each week Bergman visited every research laboratory and would hear from researchers about their progress [and] about their difficulties. He helped and encouraged them whenever it was necessary.

In 1958 RAFAEL started focusing more on development. There is an important difference between an organization that deals mostly with development and an organization that deals mostly with research. While in research the direction of your work is determined to a great extent by the degree of interest you have with regards to a particular direction, in development you need to reduce your research to the bare minimum necessary to reach a particular goal. Bergman tended, to a great extent, to work on research, and as a result of that his influence on [development] work [at RAFAEL] was reduced.

[Hermoni’s note] (One could understand the difference between research and development if one understands the difference between the way a scientist or researcher [engineer] treats his research topic, and the way the developer treats his research. It could be described as follows: The scientist, or the [research] engineer, would sharpen the pencil as much as possible, while the developer will sharpen it only the point that the pencil needs to be used. Moreover, in a research project, when you have to prove ‘existence proposition,” [i.e., that something (e.g., phenomenon, invention, technique, technology, etc.) exists or can be made] you have to work very hard, but when you already know that something is possible you can reduce your research since the basic information already exists, and all you need to do is to gather it.)Bergman held [an] important role in pushing RAFAEL towards non-conventional development, and in influencing the defense ministry to approve [development] of these areas.

How did the organizational structure [of RAFAEL] change [in comparison to its predecessor EMET] after prioritizing development over research?

Munya Mardor[6] formed three separate administrative entities, which were headed by [three] technical directors who were directly subordinated to him. In the early 1960s the technical directors were Yedidya Shamir, Ephraim Lahav, and myself [Avraham Hermoni].

The budgets necessary for the management of the projects were prepared by the project heads and by the main areas chiefs, and were approved by the director of RAFAEL. The technical director was the technical-scientific senior advisor of the head of RAFAEL. He would advise him [the director, Mardor] about the necessity of certain investments in activities and in instrumentation which were requested by the people working on the project. In addition, the technical directors oversaw the implementation of project plans throughout the budgetary year.

RAFAEL projects were usually initiated by RAFAEL’s personnel[7], and only after their completion [or initiation] RAFAEL tried “selling” them to the various branches of the IDF[8].    RAFAEL wasn’t always successful in doing that, and in a quite number of cases the finished projects had to be placed on the shelf because of IDF’s refusal to use those means that were developed by RAFAEL, and the IDF preference to purchase these means overseas.

Who set development goals and specifications for RAFAEL?

Nobody gave us any specifications, even in important projects. We would define our own goals, including their precise specifications, and would bring the information to the appropriate authorities, who didn’t always respond [to this information].

This could have been seen on several levels:

The ministry of defense would allocate funds to RAFAEL, but there weren’t people in within the senior staff [of the Ministry] who could have [reviewed or] overseen RAFAEL [proposed projects]. The Ministry’s staff usually didn’t prepare for those meetings [about weapon systems development], so if you presented them with three alternatives, one of which is yours [which was] presented in the best possible way, and the two others, which any [lay person] could see were bad, and even if you recommended one of these two alternatives, the [Ministry’s] Staff would brand you as a “fool” and would choose your [real] option.

The political [i.e., politically elected] [superiors] didn’t give any specifications either. Somewhere there is a letter which I sent to [Shimon]Peres[9] (when Peres was a Deputy Minister of Defense), in which some options for implementation were presented and it was written that if we will not get an answer, and none of the options would be chosen, he [Hermoni] will choose option “x”. An answer to the letter was never received.

[Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol[10] never talked with RAFAEL’s leadership directors about the political aspects [of the nuclear project]. And this created problems since we never received concrete [guidance] [on the nuclear project].   

It’s possible that there was some technical oversight by the office of the deputy minister [Peres]. The minister had his own technical team, which provided interpretation of things [projects] that were happening below, but his oversight didn’t have any significance, and [he] just approves projects in principle. He [the deputy minister] may authorize, for example, the development of a surface to surface missile, but he would not review means and methods of development.

Despite the lack of [political guidance and technical] specifications, one may assume that if Ben-Gurion wasn’t the prime minister [at the time], but rather [Yitzhak] Rabin[11] or Eshkol, it is very possible that this issue [i.e., the nuclear issue, the bomb] wouldn’t have been developed, and RAFAEL [if it was created at all] would have been a completely different [organization today]. If something exists today[12]  it is because of people like Peres and Bergman, even though Peres didn’t understand anything about these issues. One time [I remember] Peres and another person argued about the [nuclear] issue in Eshkol’s presence. Eshkol stopped them, and told them that they shouldn’t try to impress him, because he knows that neither of them understands the issue.

The problem with all of RAFAEL’s critics [in those days] is that they had no [access to] independent sources of information.

What was your role as the technical director of the [nuclear] project?

When I was appointed as a technical director the work on the [nuclear] project had already begun. In reviewing the management of the [nuclear] project I noticed a few major flaws:

A lack of a realistic and a suitable timetable which would outline our work plan, a fact that undermined our ability to take executive and budgetary decisions.Not having prepared a comprehensive literature review regarding possible solutions for particular problems which came up during the development of the project.  It forced us to waste time over finding solutions for problems to which solutions were already available in the professional open literature. Lack of full analysis of the necessary actions which are required in order to find a solution for a particular problem, something that burdened our budget and human resources.

I took steps to fix these problems. First, I introduced and put into use, for the first time in Israel, [the Program Evaluation and Review Technique] PERT methodology[13] which was used first [by the US Navy] in [managing] the development of the POLARIS .[14] Using such managerial method allowed us to present [in a graphic form] a necessary (and realistic) timetable to conduct different activities, as well as the relationships between these various activities [under the project]. I prepared through my administration literature reviews which demonstrated how much available information existed [openly] about each issue we dealt with, and how, without starting from scratch, we could solve [technical] problems when they arose.

With regards to budgetary and human resources requests, within the framework of our budget, I reviewed the available information, the activities involved, the budgetary demands stemming from them, as well as the need for these activities. This review forced the project’s personnel to perform this analysis themselves, prior to the budgetary discussions.

Why it was not done by the [nuclear] project’s people beforehand?

RAFAEL’s personnel, that is, the engineers and the scientists who were involved in the [nuclear] project were for the most part excellent people. However, scientists and engineers tend to give their own solutions to every technical problem, and in this way turn a large part of the development project into a scientific research project. In my opinion, it is the task of the project’s technical director to prevent such things from happening.

Have scientists and engineers from the different academic research institutions helped with the execution of the [nuclear] project?

Most of the academic scientists and the engineers who were paid by us [RAFAEL] were used as mere advisors, and their contribution wasn’t that significant.   At the same time, a small number of scientists did contribute significantly.

In mid-1962 [David] Ben-Gurion[15] held an important meeting, with [Shimon] Peres, [Moshe] Dayan[16], [Yigal Allon] and [Israel] Galili[17], and in which they debated whether or not to introduce nuclear weapons. Are you aware of that?

I’m not aware of such a meeting, and I don’t believe such a meeting was held.

In your view, should the State of Israel possess non-conventional weapons capabilities?

In my view the State of Israel cannot afford finding itself in a situation in which the Arab states [and Iran] would have non-conventional weapons, while it wouldn’t have a weapon that could deter its enemies from using those non-conventional weapons. Some Arab states already showed their willingness to use non-conventional weapons in conditions where the other side doesn’t have such weapons.

The only answer [to the nuclear issue in the Middle East] is making peace with the Arabs, and it could reduce the dangers of Arab [nuclear] interest, and peace should be a stepping board for the creation of economic [incentives] which would further increase Arab reluctance to start wars. Here, between Israel and the Arabs, there could not be a ‘balance of terror,’ something that Peres did not understand [in those days].

In a 1967 article about a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt I argued that security has several components and territory is [only] one of them. But it is possible to find equivalents for territory. We can return territories to the Egyptians and in return ask the Americans for new weapons development possibilities. Rabin [read] the article and said he had nothing to quarrel with it, but this is not the way we [Israel] works.

Is there a [plan] on when to put into use non-conventional weapons?

In my view, there is no doctrine that covers offensive use of such weapons. I think that the doctrine, in case it exists, covers only retaliatory use of such weapons, in case the enemy already introduced them.

 What elements in the IDF were in charge of ordering non-conventional weapons?

Unlike other weapons, the purpose of non-conventional weapons is for deterrence purposes, and that’s why its ordering was more of a political matter then a military matter. Deterrence with such weapons begins with rumors that such weapons exist, and ends with the execution of a test that shows that such weapon exists and that it can be used. Without a test all the means remain within the framework of deterrence. Such means are not under the IDF’s responsibility. One should test certain non-conventional weapons only at critical moments, since the test itself is the end of deterrence and the beginning of use.

[Two paragraphs excised]

Why did [Zevi] Dinstein[18] appoint [Israel] Dostrovsky[19] [in 1966] in charge of the nuclear project?

As far as I know, the minister of defense at the time, Levi Eshkol, wasn’t convinced that RAFAEL and other weapons development bodies didn’t waste large sums of money in their development projects. Therefore, [Eshkol] asked [his deputy, Zevi] Dinstein to develop a system which would introduce tighter oversight system on the activities taking place during the various development stages.  Dinstein determined that the specific IDF corps which would use a certain development product should be the official customer, and the funds necessary for development would go through that corps.  In one of the major projects [i.e., the nuclear project] Dostrovsky was asked to be the customer, and as a result, the funder.

While after ordering and defining specifications the IDF didn’t interfere with the implementation of a development program, Dostrovsky did interfere with the execution of that project, a project which was by then in its final stages.

Dostrovsky’s appointment wasn’t political, and Eshkol didn’t know him well enough to see him as a [political] confidant. There was no sense that Eshkol had a political problem [with the nuclear project], and if there were problems, they were technical problems, such as the lack of specifications. Eshkol didn’t want to stop projects, but he was interested in the financial questions, and this is why he appointed Dinstein. There was no sense that things were done without Eshkol’s knowledge, but [it appears] that Eshkol never asked where the money went.

As far as Dostrovsky’s attitude to the project is concerned, one may assume that had he been appointed in Bergman’s time, he would not have pushed the project like Bergman. Had Ben-Gurion stayed for several more years, the only difference would be that Dostrovsky would not have brought in. As far as Dayan is concerned, he didn’t have much influence on the [nuclear] issue, and neither did [Yigal] Allon[20].   

Who won in the argument between Munya [Mardor][21] and [Zevi] Dinstein?

The question is what criteria would you use to define victory? If the answer is the laying off of personnel, then Mardor wins, but if the criteria are Dostrovsky’s integration in the project then Dinstein won.

[1] Professor Avraham Hermoni was a technical director (equivalent to vice president) in RAFAEL (1959-1969). He was the most senior official to oversee the nuclear project at RAFAEL headquarters.

[2] RAFAEL [Hebrew Acronym for Weapons Development Authority] is Israel’s prime national research and development laboratory for military technology and weaponry.  It runs as a for profit company owned by the State of Israel.  It was founded in 1958, after it was decided to reorganize its predecessor, the Division of Research and Planning at the Ministry of Defense, and to concentrate on development.  The primary impetus for the creation of RAFAEL was the decision to initiate a nuclear project, with its two arms KAMAG and RAFAEL.

[3] HEMED (1948–1951) was the science corps of the Israeli military, focused on military research and development.  

[4]  EMET (Agaf Mechkar Ve’Tichun) was the research and planning division of the Ministry of Defense from 1951 to 1958. In 1958 it was abolished and replaced by RAFAEL.

[5] Ernst David Bergmann (1903–1975) was a German-born organic chemist and protégé of Chaim Weizmann.   He was the scientific director of the Ziff Institute (the predecessor of the Weizmann Institute) until 1951, when he became Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s scientific advisor and the scientific head of EMET. . Bergmann was also the first chair of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) from 1952 to 1966. He is widely considered to be the founding-father of Israel's nuclear program.

[6] Meir “Munya” Mardor (1913–1985) was a senior Israeli defense official and industrialist. He was the first director of EMET, a military research and development organ which operated between 1952 until 1958. He later became director general of RAFAEL, and oversaw RAFAEL’s involvement in the Israeli nuclear program.

[7] As opposed to projects initiated by the military or the ministry of defense.

[8] IDF stands for Israeli Defense Force, the Israeli military.  

[9] Shimon Peres (1923–) served as Israel’s the Deputy-Director General and Director General of the Ministry of Defense in 1952 and 1953 to 1959 respectively. In 1959 Peres became a member of the Knesset and was subsequently appointed Deputy Minister of Defense [first to Prime Minister Ben Gurion and in 1963 to Prime Minister Levi Eshkol] until 1965. Peres played a most significant role in the development of Israel’s nuclear program, effectively he was the CEO of all aspects of the project. .

[10] Levi Eshkol (1895–1969) was Israel’s third Prime Minister, serving from 1963 to 1969.

[11] Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995) was Israel’s fifth Prime Minister, serving two non-consecutive terms from 1974 to 1977 and 1992–1995. He was also the Israeli ambassador to the United States from 1968 to 1973.

[12] Hermoni clearly refers to the bomb, even though he was careful not say it explicitly

[13] The PERT method is an analysis and evaluation technique developed by the US Navy during the Cold War.  More specifically, it is a statistical tool that formulates a timetable for the completion of large scale projects. It was first designed in the context of the development of the Polaris-submarine weapons system.

[14] POLARIS is a two stage, solid fuel nuclear armed and submarine-launched ballistic missile.

[15] David Ben Gurion (1886–1973) was the first Israeli Prime Minister and leader of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish Agency during the British Mandate. He was a driving force behind Israel’s nuclear program.

[16] Moshe Dayan (1915–1981) was a noted Israeli military leader and politician, serving as the chief of staff to the Israeli Defense Forces from 1953 to 1958. He was Minister of Agriculture during Prime Minister Ben-Gurion’s second term and Minister of Defense for Prime Minister Eshkol and Golda Meir.

[17] Israel Galili (1911–1986) was a member of the Knesset, where he was part of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and Chairman of Ministerial Committee for Settlements.

[18] Zevi Dinstein (1926–2012) was Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol’s deputy Minister of Defense from 1965 until June 1967, and as such he was in charge of the nuclear project. Later he was the chairman and president of the Israeli Petroleum and Energy Institute from 1970-1989.

[19] Israel Dostrovsky (1918–2010) was a notable Israeli scientist. Working at the Weizmann Institute, Dostrovsky founded the Department of Isotope Research and later served as the director-general of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission under Israeli Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir.

[20] Yigal Allon (1918–1980) was a prominent Israeli general and politician. He was I Minister of Labor from 1961 to 1967 and Deputy Prime Minister from 1967 to 1969.

[21] Mardor transformed HEMED into the civilian organization Agaf Mechkar Ve’Tichun (EMET), the research and planning division of the Ministry of Defense, and was its first director. He later became the director-general of RAFAEL.