On the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, Israel’s premier nuclear historian, Avner Cohen, just released, with the cooperation of the Woodrow Wilson Center, a trove of interviews with figures who were key participants in strategic decisions of that historic time. One of the most dramatic and riveting is with Arnan “Sini” Azaryahu (interview transcript), at that time the chief aide to one of Israel’s most powerful Labor Party ministers, Yisrael Galili. Galili was a member of the war cabinet that received regular updates on the war and was consulted about major strategic decisions made.
On the third day of the war, after the Egyptians had launched their successful surprise attack and crossed the Suez Canal and pushed Israeli forces far back into the Sinai; and the Syrians had almost routed the skeleton armored force the IDF maintained in the Golan Heights, the military situation was bleak. Israel was thrown back on its heels on both fronts, its military stocks were rapidly being depleted, and its defense minister, Moshe Dayan, had what to many appeared to verge on a nervous breakdown. The defeats took a stark toll on him; and Golda Meir, Galili and Yigal Allon, who never liked Dayan much to begin with, feared the worst.
Azaryahu recounts what would become a critical meeting of the war cabinet (though it was summoned off-handedly and rather haphazardly). During it, the IDF chief of staff, David Elazar, gave a bleak assessment of the military posture. Dayan, waiting till after Elazar had left, summoned Shalhevet Freyer, director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, into the room. The defense minister then, in the most casual manner possible, told the group that because Israel’s predicament was so grave (he appeared to believe that Israel had lost the war), he thought Israel should prepare a nuclear demonstration blast to warn its enemies that this would be what they had in store if they didn’t stop the attack.
Cohen surmises that Dayan’s plan was to mount a nuclear weapon on a French Mirage fighter (at that time the U.S. placed restrictions on using U.S. warplanes for such operations) and detonate it over an unpopulated region in Syria or Egypt. As a historical aside, I revealed some time ago that there was a secret WMD-related IAF Unit 155. At the time, I didn’t know why the unit had been disbanded. Now I do.
An Israeli source tells me that this top-secret command was tasked with arming its Mirages with nuclear weapons in the event their use was ordered. Israel could not, at the time, use American planes due to restrictions that forbade their being armed with nuclear weapons. Once these conditions were removed in the 1980s, Unit 155 was disbanded (1987) and Mirages were phased out of the Israeli arsenal. There is now a new version of Unit 155, Israel’s version of the Strategic Air Command, which uses nuclear-armed U.S. warplanes. It is commanded by Brig. Gen. Uri Oron (I also revealed his position here for the first time publicly). Ironically, Oron’s father is a former head of the nominally left-of-center Meretz Party.
A further interesting historical side note is that Lt. Col. Avi Lanir, the highest ranking IAF pilot who died in the 1973 War was downed and captured over Syrian territory. Lanir was a member of Unit 155. His capture was a major disaster for Israel since he had knowledge not only of Israel’s nuclear program, but how Israel would use its nuclear weapons. Israel offered to withdraw from strategic Syrian territory in return for Lanir’s release. But by then his Syrian interrogators had killed him.
Prof. Cohen believes that Dayan must’ve asked Golda’s permission to advance this proposal. Which would mean that she thought it should be considered seriously (otherwise she would’ve rejected even raising the matter) though she might not have agreed with him. Once Dayan brought up his idea, Allon and Galili dismissed it out of hand. They were more optimistic about Israel’s overall chances in the battle; and believed that once it brought its reserve forces to the Golan front they would outnumber the Syrians and turn the course of battle (which is what did happen).
Galili didn’t know whether Dayan had already directed Freyer to prepare for such a use. And even though Golda ultimately told Dayan not to pursue such a plan, because of his near-breakdown mental state, Galili wasn’t sure Dayan would actually call it off. So he asked for Freyer to be resummoned to the meeting, which he’d momentarily left, and for Golda to tell him “in plain Hebrew” that there would be no nuclear demonstration. This is how freighted this meeting was and how close Israel came to setting this plan in motion.
This account reminds me of the equally dramatic stories of the Kennedy war room during the Cuban missile crisis, in which the president and his top war advisors, including Defense secretary Robert McNamara, also discussed whether the U.S. was willing to use nuclear weapons to prevent Russian nukes in Cuba. These historical reports indicate that we came too damn close. Though Israel may ultimately not have come as close (at least according to the account of this one particular meeting) it too came too damn close. Not to mention that had Dayan had more support from Golda or her war ministers, his near breakdown might’ve caused a nuclear showdown during that war.
At no point, did anyone in the meeting consider the impact that atomic radiation resulting from such an air blast would cause. A Scientific American article estimates that above-ground Chinese nuclear tests caused as many as “a few hundred thousand” deaths in the areas affected by nuclear fallout. No doubt, an Israeli blast would’ve caused tens, if not scores of thousands of such deaths. The only concern the policy-makers had in the meeting was that using a nuke would destroy any support they had in the west for their position.
Cohen believes that the substance of this meeting disproves reports by Seymour Hersh and others, that Israel was so dispirited that it was on the verge of using a nuclear weapon on the battlefield; or that Israel prepared weapons for use in a successful attempt to blackmail the U.S. into mounting a massive military resupply effort. It was this operation which replenished the IDF’s empty armory and allowed it to mount a Sinai counteroffensive which ultimately threw the Egyptians back.
In his commentary on the interview, Cohen concedes that there were many meetings, conversations and memoranda written during the War and that this meeting, while decisive, was a small part of the overall picture. So what I take from this is that internally, Israel’s top leadership (except for Dayan) opposed the use of nuclear weapons, at least in this particular meeting. But this does not mean there were not other such discussions at which the matter was brought up. It doesn’t mean Dayan didn’t try to convince others of the merits of his plan. It doesn’t mean that Golda didn’t use Dayan’s plan as a tool (or blackmail) to extract promises of U.S. aid from Nixon and Kissinger.
In fact, this Ronen Bergman account of Cohen’s interview with Yuval Neeman, who played critical roles in Israel’s nuclear weapons program and intelligence services, confirms that IDF chief of staff David Elazar did indeed order the arming of Israel’s Jericho nuclear-armed ballistic missiles in 1973. Neeman who, during the War, was a special advisor to the general staff, called that moment during the War, the “Day of Judgment.” This indicates how grave Israel’s leaders saw their predicament. They were fully prepared to use nukes and came very close to doing so seems evident.
American satellites discovered two brigades of Soviet Scuds armed with nuclear warheads in the Nile Delta which were meant for use in the event of an Israeli attack on Egyptian cities. This knowledge caused chief of staff Elazar to arm the Jerichos.
This brings me to another important historical document just passed to me by a reader interested in this subject. It was the 1960 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate which projected that Israel was building a nuclear plant at Dimona whose purpose was likely to build a nuclear weapon. The predictions and assumptions which U.S. intelligence discussed in this paper are fascinating both for how prescient some of them were; and how naïve. The NIE was declassified several years ago and has been analyzed before. But it bears examination here because of the context of Israel’s near use of a nuclear weapon in 1973.
The CIA analysts discussed the regional context that led to France’s agreement to provide Israel with the plans and expertise to build its nuclear plant:
…Their [France's] decision was consistent with their policy of bolstering Israel as the only reliable long-term French ally in an area swept by influence hostile to France. France has repeatedly contended that vigorous and , if necessary, unilateral action was necessary to prevent anti-western, nationalist, neutralist, and Communist forces from outflanking NATO in the Near East and North Africa.
Here we see in black-and-white the CIA’s conviction that France was, in its relations with its post-WWII colonies, obsessed by both the bogeymen of its past colonial past and the new bogeymen of Communism. Due to such benighted ideas, France thought it an excellent idea to enable Israel to become a nuclear state. What were they thinking, might be the least of your thoughts. Look how well it’s turned out. France lost all those colonies and its empire. It gave Israel the ability to produce nuclear weapons. All of which gained it and Israel nothing.
Many Israelis would disagree with this last statement. But consider the following passage in light of subsequent Israeli history:
…Possession of a nuclear weapon capability…would clearly give Israel a greater sense of security, self-confidence, and assertiveness…[It would] make plain that henceforth, Israel is a power to be accorded more respect than either its friends or enemies have hitherto given it.
…It probably would make it increasingly clear that an Arab attack on Israel would be met with nuclear retaliation. Israel would emphasize that Arab hopes of solving the Palestine problem by boycott, blockade and military means were now unrealistic and that the Arabs had no recourse had no recourse but to negotiate for a peaceful settlement. At the same time, Israel would be even less inclined than ever to make concessions, and would press its interests in the region more vigorously…
It’s hard to know precisely what motivated David Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres to undertake this campaign to get a nuclear bomb. Presumably, they believed it would protect Israel in the event that an Arab neighbor tried to do the same: a sort of nuclear-age keeping up with the Joneses even before the Jones had one. But I maintain that attaining a nuclear weapon did not give Israel a greater sense of security; though it did give it a greater sense of assertiveness (a euphemism for aggressiveness).
Nuclearization turned Israel from a run of the mill Middle Eastern state into an impregnable fortress. I don’t only mean that in a strategic sense. I mean it in a psychological one as well. Israel believed it was walled off forever from any threat. That it had the ultimate protection should anything go really wrong. This allowed it to pursue any interest no matter how foolish or self-defeating; to refuse any offer it deemed insufficient.
Instead of making Israel more secure, it did just the opposite. It helped turn Israel into a national security state. Combining Israel’s Original Sin in exiling nearly 1-million of its Palestinian residents during the Nakba (aka the War of Independence) with having nuclear weapons gave Israel much more to lose than to win. It has focussed almost its entirely national life on not losing, rather than winning.
It believes it can’t afford to lose its military superiority and has a profound obsession about this. It can’t afford to lose secrets like its nuclear weapons capability least the country become naked and exposed to its enemies. That’s why it’s refused to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is why it has turned Mordechai Vanunu into a veritable Joan of Arc, virtually burning him at the stake with a 20-year jail sentence and refusal to allow him to emigrate to another country after his release.
Further, having the bomb did not protect Israel from attack as the 1973 War pointed out. Because Golda Meir had rejected Anwar Sadat’s offer to commence negotiations leading to return of Egyptian territory and normalizing relations, Egypt attacked Israel. It did so knowing Israel had nuclear weapons. They didn’t protect anything or anyone from war with the Arabs.
I believe that nuclear weapons for Israel have been a trap. They promised security and instead offered just the opposite. Instead of seeing itself as strong enough that it could afford to compromise and achieve real, lasting peace; it sees itself as beset by enemies out to destroy it. Having a nuclear weapons capacity has only increased this sense of threat and paranoia.
This passage has also proven prescient in light of Iran’s possible pursuit of nuclear weapons:
Israel’s initiative will remove some of the inhibitions to development of nuclear weapons in other Free World countries with the resources and military incentives to achieve such a capability.
The Estimate wrongly surmised that Sweden and Switzerland might be inclined to pursue a nuclear track more seriously. In addition, the analysts had right under their noses the very Arab states most threatened by Israel’s bomb. At the time, no doubt, U.S. experts would have doubted that any Arab or Muslim country could undertake such a complicated project. A later passage in the report correctly notes that Israel’s nuclear project would cause China to agitate with its Soviet patron for its own capability. Indeed, by 1965, China did have its own weapon.
By the late 1990s both India and Pakistan had their own bombs, followed shortly thereafter by North Korea. Japan is widely believed to have nuclear capability, though it has deliberately downplayed this and used the concept of opacity much more effectively than Israel (probably because it really doesn’t want its neighbors to feel the need to get their own).
Some believe that Iran may be pursuing research and development that could offer them nuclear weapons. Ironically, it was the U.S. which helped develop Iran’s initial nuclear program under the Shah. After the Islamic revolution there, the Ayatollahs made the project their own and saw it as an insurance plan should they be attacked by enemies. How, given the concerns expressed in the above passage, could either Israel or the U.S. believe another state in the region would not follow Israel’s lead? And isn’t it the height of hypocrisy for threatening such a state with war because it’s doing what the U.S. turned a blind eye to in 1960 and after?
It seems clear to me that Israel has taken such an intransigent position regarding Iran’s nuclear program not because it is afraid it would use such weapons against Israel, but rather because it will eliminate one of the most essential aspects of Israel’s military deterrent against its enemies. Israel’s nuclear weapons have become a crutch, an addiction if you will. The thought that Israel will have to share this drug with other users in the region and not be the only addict, forces Israel to consider what it would do if it had to go cold-turkey. The prospect, as for many addicts, is terrifying.