Did Israel Ever Get Close to Using the Nuclear Weapons It Doesn’t Confirm Having? Yes — Twice

So far, in the 65 years of the State of Israel’s history — or, more relevantly, in what we’ve learned is a 46-year period of possessing nuclear weapons (although Israel officially refuses to confirm having them) — have Israeli authorities ever come close to using “the bomb”?  Yes.  Twice.

The oft-celebrated Moshe Dayan panicked, thought nuclear

One occasion, long rumored, came during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 — this time of year, 40 years ago. That is the statutory period that permits the State Archives in Jerusalem to declassify many official papers from that period.

Egypt and Syria, in a coordinated attack on two widely separated fronts, had taken Israel’s celebrated and cocky military by surprise.

The defense minister, the eyepatch-wearing General Moshe Dayan, panicked. Other military officers and officials of the time had the clear impression that he believed Israel might lose — and losing might mean the end of Israel.

We — and some other historians — already reported that Dayan suggested “the end of the Third Temple” was nigh. Now the State Archives confirm that.

Official documents, just released now thanks to the passage of four decades, show that Defense Minister Dayan and General Rehavam (“Gandhi”) Ze’evi both hinted at the need to use “the strategic weapons.”

The declassified papers don’t use the word “nuclear,” but the meaning is clear: a very drastic step, using a weapon to that point totally hidden, to turn back the seemingly unstoppable invaders (the Egyptians, having crossed the Suez Canal and heading eastward through the Sinai, perceived perhaps as more surprisingly dangerous to Israel than the Syrians on the Golan Heights).

The papers show that Prime Minister Golda Meir and the military chief of staff, General David (“Dado”) Elazar rejected the idea of unsheathing “the strategic weapons.” Meir and Elazar were forced to resign in 1974, when an investigatory commission revealed severe mistakes made in the run-up to the 1973 war; and Elazar died of a heart attack while swimming (in 1976) at age 50.

The first occasion when a plan was developed for using a nuclear weapon was in 1967, just after Israel built its very first atomic bomb — according to sources who decline to be named but have helped establish unofficial chronologies of Israel’s secret nuclear program.  Here is an excerpt from our book, Spies Against Armageddon (Chapter 11):

The scientific and technical breakthroughs that made it possible for Israel to build an atomic bomb came—by coincidence—just before the Six-Day War of June 1967. Only a few people knew that the Jewish state became the sixth country to achieve nuclear weapons capability, joining the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Britain, and China in that exclusive club.

Israel’s undeclared status nearly came into play during the three-week crisis that led up to the outbreak of war on June 5. Israeli political leaders and military chiefs were very concerned by the expulsion of United Nations peacekeepers from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. It was also impossible to dismiss Cairo’s raucous psychological campaign that claimed Arab armies would smash Israel and throw the Jews into the sea. Fears of another Holocaust were fueled by the fact that Egypt’s military had just used chemical weapons in Yemen’s civil war.

Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion

Against that background, some defense ministry officials and scientists in Tel Aviv deliberated over nuclear strategy.

Ben-Gurion had insisted on developing the world’s most dangerous weapons, but no one had clearly decided when they might be used. Forty-six years later, the results of these discussions continue to be secret and, according to sources close to the participants, surprisingly ambiguous.

The emerging picture is that Rafael, the official Israeli company for developing armaments, mobilized all of its top engineers and technicians during the weeks of crisis in 1967. According to Lt. General Tzvi Tzur, a former IDF chief of staff who was then a special adviser to the defense ministry, those men and women “worked around the clock and neared total collapse” to assemble Israel’s first nuclear device.

Tzur told oral historians: “A committee of two was set up, in the days leading to the war, to connect a few wires.” This was a big bomb, not ready to be fit into a missile or even dropped from an airplane.

Around the same time, the commander of the Sayeret Matkal commando unit, Lt. Colonel Dov Tamari, was summoned to headquarters for a meeting with a general. Tamari was ordered to prepare a team of Sayeret soldiers to fly by helicopter into the Sinai. They would be carrying “a thing,” which the general did not specify.

The mission sketched out would have the troops place Israel’s first nuclear bomb and some kind of detonation mechanism on a high peak—perhaps for maximal psychological effect choosing Mount Sinai, where the Bible says Moses received the Ten Commandments. If Egypt’s army, already massing in the Sinai, were to cross into Israel and threaten Tel Aviv or other major cities, the Israelis would shock the invaders by turning the mountain into little more than rubble under a mushroom cloud.

The plan was dropped, in large part because Israel won the June 1967 war so easily.

November 2, 2013

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