Avraham Hermoni

The Avner Cohen Collection

Avraham Hermoni served as senior technical director of the Israeli nuclear weapons program. In this interview, he recounts the relationship between the Israeli government, the IDF, and the Weapons Development Authority (RAFAEL) during the development of Israel's nuclear capability.


Biography
 

Avraham Hermoni (May 10 1926- June 24 2006) was an Israeli chemist, government official, scientific counselor in the Israeli embassy in Washington, and a senior technical director at RAFAEL, Israel’s national center for weapons development.

Hermoni’s involvement in the Israeli nuclear program was instrumental to its ultimate success. Between 1959 and 1969 he served as technical director (equivalent to vice president) at RAFAEL. His main duties included overseeing and planning RAFAEL’s work on Israel’s nuclear weapons.

Interview Notes by Avner Cohen

This transcript reflects the combined content of two long interviews I conducted with Professor Avraham Hermoni in August and September 1992. Both interviews took place at his home in Savyon, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Hermoni was a young retiree at the time of these interviews, only sixty-six years of age. He had worked for decades as a scientist and manager on some of Israel’s most secretive defense projects, most prominently the nuclear project. In all those years, he remained anonymous to the general public: a gray scientist-bureaucrat committed to secrecy, and I was fortunate enough to meet him at the right time to hear his story.

This transcript does not directly reflect the raw minutes of the taped interview. Rather, it is Hermoni’s own edited and approved account of the interview, restructured by him in the form of twelve questions and answers. I worked out this special arrangement with him in order to establish trust and gain his cooperation: Hermoni was unwilling to engage me unless he knew that he had full control of his words. This allowed him to tell me all sorts of “off the record” anecdotes, tales which he clearly wanted me to know (even if not to publish), while remaining in charge over the final record that would appear in my publications.

This system worked well. In retrospect, Hermoni was among my top interviewees: he was a senior insider, he had a great memory, and he was an engaging storyteller. During the formative years of the Israeli nuclear program between 1961 and 1968, Hermoni served under the bureaucratic title “technical manager” as the eyes and ears for Munya [Meir] Mardor, RAFAEL’s legendry founding father.[1] Hermoni was not the nuclear project’s chief at RAFAEL—this role was filled by Jenka (Yevgeni) Ratner and his deputy Eliezer Gon—but he was their scientific boss as “technical director.” I could not have asked for a better interlocutor about RAFAEL’s role on the nuclear issue than Avraham Hermoni.   

On his job as a “technical director,” Hermoni had a reputation as a tough, even pedantic manager. When I first contacted him, I feared that he might refuse to talk to me. To my surprise, Hermoni seemed intrigued, even pleased, by my interest in him. I spoke with him whenever I visited Israel, updating him on my research while trying to get feedback from him. Our conversations often provided me precious insights, both large and small. As I gained Hermoni’s trust, he told me more “off the record” stories. In return, I showed him early drafts and asked for friendly comments.    

Over this research period, I have learned that certain historical insights are impossible to convey through written documents alone. My conversations with Hermoni illustrate that point many times. For example, while I knew the basic division of labor between RAFAEL and Dimona[2] before I met Hermoni—Dimona provided the fissile material while RAFAEL handled weaponization—my conversations with Hermoni alerted me to the difference in ethos between the two organizations. The Israeli nuclear complex was less a house divided than a house apart: the two partners to the project had difficulties to communicate with each other, and indeed each had a radically different perspective on the role of the other.  RAFAEL viewed Dimona as the project’s “water carrier and wood chopper,” while RAFAEL saw itself as Israel’s Los Alamos.  

Another extraordinary insight that does not appear in the written record involves the sensitive communication (or lack of it) between the political bosses, the political decision-makers, and the professional/technical executives. Hermoni wanted me to know how little guidance was given to him as a senior manage by his political bosses—specifically Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Deputy Minister of Defense Shimon Peres—regarding important and fateful decisions made regarding the nuclear project. Hermoni felt that political higher-ups left abandoned the technical professionals to make such decisions alone, leaving the false impression that those decisions were merely technical decisions, not political and/or moral decisions. Hermoni viewed this as an attempt by political officials to shrug their responsibilities.

I will end this introduction with an amusing anecdote that Hermoni told me that took place sometime during the period when Hermoni was the science attaché at the Israeli embassy in Washington D.C. (approximately 1969–72). One evening, during an intermission of a cultural event at the Kennedy Center, Hermoni noticed John Hadden, the former CIA station chief in Tel Aviv (1964-68), in the audience. Hermoni knew well that one of Hadden’s most important tasks while in Israel was to monitor the nuclear project. As they recognized each other in distance, Hadden shouted, “Avraham, does it work?” to which Hermoni promptly responded, “One hundred percent it does.” Both laughed. 

What does this little anecdote tell us, beyond a little laughter?  Maybe it suggests that even in those early days, the big secret was not that big, and it was already “the worst-kept secret.”


[1] RAFAEL (the Hebrew acronym for Weapons Development Authority) is Israel’s primary national research and development laboratory for military technology and weaponry

[2] Officially the Negev’s Nuclear Research Center, or in its acronym, KAMAG

 

 

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Leopoldo Nuti // Co-Director, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project; Public Policy Scholar
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant