In late September 1957, Israel was set to sign an agreement with France. The French Atomic Energy Commission, after four years of negotiations, had agreed to provide Israel with a plutonium reactor. All that was needed in order to cement the deal was the signature of the French foreign minister and his prime minister.
What happened during the next 24 hours, as documented in Michael Bar-Zohar’s Hebrew biography of Shimon Peres, “Phoenix,” seems to epitomize the political suavity and steely tenacity of Israel’s ninth president.
His first stop on Monday morning, September 30, was at the office of Pierre Guillaumat, the head of France’s Atomic Energy Commission and an avid supporter of Israel. He told Peres what he already knew: the deal could only be finalized with the government’s approval, and the government was teetering on the edge of collapse.
Peres hurried to the office of Foreign Minister Christian Pineau, the main opponent of the deal. Pineau promptly told Peres what he’d told Israeli foreign minister Golda Meir a few days prior. He wanted to help but couldn’t; the Americans would be livid if they found out and might impose sanctions on France that would cripple its own dawning nuclear capacity. Moreover, the agreement could induce the Soviet Union to arm Egypt with nuclear weapons.
Peres had come prepared. The reactor was for peaceful purposes, he said. If that ever was to change, Israel would consult with France first. Also, he said, who was to say the Soviet Union wouldn’t introduce nuclear weapons to Egypt on its own accord? Then what would the West do?
Pineau agreed and Peres urged him to call the prime minister. Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury did not answer and so Peres convinced Pineau to dictate the terms of their agreement to his secretary. The two of them signed the paper, and then Peres convinced him that he — a foreign national — would ferry the paper to the prime minister of France.
All that was needed now was Bourgès-Maunoury’s signature. Peres went to his office and waited. The hours passed. Afternoon turned to evening. Several rounds of whiskey were sent to the office but as midnight approached Peres realized two things: he would not likely see the prime minister that evening, and the prime minister, who was stuck in parliament, was likely being defeated in a no-confidence vote.
The next morning Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion wrote in his diary that the French government had fallen over a vote about Algeria and that Peres’s trip to Paris was likely “for naught.”
He did not know that Peres had secured the prime minister’s oral agreement late that night and that at nine in the morning Peres was seated in Bourgès-Maunoury’s office. The French prime minister had not slept, Bar-Zohar writes, and his eyes were red. He was no longer the prime minister of France. He had no authority to sign an agreement on behalf of the Fourth Republic. But with Peres’s encouragement he signed his consent, authorizing the agreement on a piece of paper that held the previous day’s date.
And in that way the seed of Israel’s deterrent power was planted.
Years later Peres summed up the backroom drama. He told Bar-Zohar, “This date or that, what does it matter? Of what [significance] is that between friends?”