TEL AVIV, Israel, April 27 (UPI) -- In the early 1950s one of Israel's reserve infantry brigades was holding a major exercise when its commander, Yuval Neeman, suddenly disappeared.
Officers were told he was hospitalized with typhus, but it was a lie. Neeman was in France on a mission that eventually produced Israel's nuclear option.
Neeman died in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. He was 81 years old and his career in Israel's defense establishment -- in the intelligence, the Atomic Energy Commission, Israel Space Agency and an adviser to ministers of defense is intertwined with tales of Israel's history. Some of the stories came to light only after his death.
Neeman had turned down the initial invitation to help develop Israeli weapons. He joined the Hagana underground during the British Mandate and studied Mechanical Engineering in Haifa's Technion. He graduated in 1945, three years before Israel won its independence.
The graduates were invited to a secret meeting in which they were asked to join the group that eventually founded Israel's Military Industries.
The organizers wanted to show off. They brought out a mortar they developed and fired a bomb. It landed two meters away. Luckily for them the bomb, too, was faulty and did not explode.
Neeman turned down their invitation. "I said I joined the Hagana in order to fight. I'll be an engineer in the family's plant," he said in an interview published last year in Yediot Aharonot.
He attended an officer's course in the underground, was the deputy commander of an infantry brigade during the 1948 war of independence and was later transferred to GHQ.
He joined what was then the top secret Atomic Energy Committee and commanded a small unit that successfully looked for uranium in Israel. He held senior positions in the military intelligence and because of friction with the then director of Military Intelligence was assigned to command Carmeli infantry recessive brigade.
That is when Prime Minister David Ben Gurion sent him to France.
The Algerian underground than was fighting for independence from France was headquartered in Cairo. Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser supported it and the French sought Israeli help in obtaining intelligence and fighting that organization. Israel wanted weapons so there was room for a deal.
In the Yediot Aharonot interview Neeman recalled that when he returned to Israel and briefed Ben Gurion the prime minister spoke about the possibility that France might help Israel develop a nuclear capability. "It was the first time he heard something on this issue. He did not give me explicit instructions. He just said, 'I want you to know what I would like to have at the end of the process."
Israeli intelligence went out of its way to help France, not only with information.
"If, for example they wanted to send someone to carry out an operation against the (FLN) headquarters in Cairo they needed our help," Neeman said.
The Israelis recruited two American-Jewish pilots, who were volunteer fighters during the 1948 war, gave them a lot of money and sent them to Kuwait to establish an airline that would fly to the Arab capitals. It had three flights a week to Cairo, the newspaper reported.
France provided Israel with fighter planes, tanks, advanced electronic systems for the military intelligence and Shimon Peres who later became prime minister eventually won French consent to help build the nuclear reactor in Dimona.
Israel tried to conceal the reactor as a textile plant but the United States found out, demanded explanations and pressured Israel to let its inspectors visit the site.
Neeman who by then headed a small nuclear reactor in Nahal Sorek, south of Tel Aviv, was their host.
On a Saturday, a day off in Israel, he took them on a tour of the Dead Sea area and on the way suggested they drop into the reactor in Dimona. They accepted the invitation, were taken on a brief tour and apparently did not see much. According to some reports broad fake walls concealed the entrances to the real sensitive areas.
On their way back the inspectors asked Neeman when the official visit would take place.
Neeman reportedly feigned surprise. They had just been there, he said.
The inspectors maintained they needed many details so Neeman took them to a restaurant on the way and volunteered to help them with the missing data, Yediot Aharonot reported.
Not surprisingly the inspectors concluded Israel was not building a nuclear bomb. "Only in 1968 did the Americans get a complete picture of what was happening in Dimona," Neeman said.
During a conference in Rochester, in 1967, Prof. Edward Teller, a friend of Neeman who developed the Hydrogen bomb, asked him to go outside and sit back to back so that Neeman would not have to worry about his facial expressions when discussing the Israeli nuclear issue.
Teller said he was tired of the U.S.-Israel cat and mouse games on the nuclear issue and offered to go to the president and suggest a deal. The United States would stop pressuring Israel for searches and inspections that only soured the two countries' relations. According to foreign reports Israel undertook to keep its activities in Dimona secret and to follow a policy of ambiguity on its nuclear program.
Israel still follows that policy and Neeman told Yediot Aharonot it should be brought up only to prevent a nuclear war.
In an address in Ashkelon last year, Neeman said the nuclear weapon is "a Jewish (sic) reaction to Hitler, the Holocaust."
He earned his PhD in London's Imperial College, under Pakistani Prof. Abdus Salam and his Neeman's research made breakthroughs in Atomic Physics.
He is the man pushed for the development of spy satellites at a time other Israelis though it was a megalomaniac idea. Nevertheless Neeman established and then headed the Israel Space Agency and Israel now has intelligence and communications satellites space. The latest satellite was launched Tuesday with a camera that can pick up items as small as 70 centimeters. By then Neeman was in critical condition at the Ichilov hospital where he died.