Dayan Called for Using Nukes During 1973 War
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.
11 thoughts on “Dayan Called for Using Nukes During 1973 War – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
Comments are published at the sole discretion of the owner.
Plenty of parallel to Pakistan building the Islamic Nuclear bomb under the watchful eye of the CIA to deter Soviet influence in India. Worked out really nice with the Khan proliferation to Libya, Iran (centrifuge design) and North Korea.
So you have a person who after 40 years say another person (who is long dead) said to him that another person (is is also very much dead for a long time now) said something about nuclear weapons.
Some news indeed….
Indeed. That’s why Haaretz, Yediot and others have written about this story because they thought it was boring. Your approach is ahistorical & idiotic.
I don’t follow Cohen’s logic that disproves that Israel didn’t blackmail the USA with the threat of going nuclear. There are other sources that say they did. As well as supplies, the US obviously supplied Israel with photo reconnaissance so that they knew the exact dispositions of the Egyptian forces. The US assisted Israel in 1967 and they did it again in 1973.
After India tested its first nuclear device and the West was seen as aqcuiescing, everyone in Pakistan understood that the only way to maintain any sort of survival and parity was to have one of its own. Then Prime Minister of Pakistan promised that the people will eat grass if they must, but Pakistan will have a nuclear bomb.
It took a while and a lot of deviousness and finally Pakistan did test its own bomb. The result was that the West roundly condemned Pakistan’s crashing through the doors of the Nuclear Club, Senator Patrick Moynahan condemned the Pakistani bomb as “The Islamic Bomb”, but everyone stepped back a little and calmed down.
Today, the people of Pakistan are still eating grass because of its corrupt leaders and the US has discovered that it is cheaper to buy Pakistani leaders than to attempt to take the country on. The US has discovered that if Pakistani officers and leaders are paid enough money, allowed to bring it back to the West and if the US arms Pakistan sufficiently, Pakistan will take on the responsibility of killing its own civilians in order to obey the American Lord.
Everyone is happy…everyone who counts, that is…
The capacity Israel has created with its long range ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines capable to fire missiles armed with nukes, oversized (for Israel’s defense needs) air force capable to very long range operations, own independent spy satellites, missile defense capasity etc indicate, that Israel has been seeking (and achieving) something completely else than the simple military capasity to protect a country named Israel by normal means. The nukes and the long range delivery capasity are intended certainly not simply to be as a last resort weapon. Or to compensate some blurry defined national “mental” uncertainty.
What if Finland as nation of 5.5 million would have 200 – 400 nukes, ballistic missiles capable to hit even Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, submarines armed with nukes, massive air force capable to make attacks thousands of kilometers away etc. Two thing are certain: 1. The countries in the neighborhood and same continent would not see that force as “defensive”. 2. Finnish politicians would not behave like the leaders of a small country, they would behave like Israeli leaders do now (=behave like leaders of a strong giant nation of hundreds of millions).
Israel itself is a basically a relatively insignificant country with its population size (5-6 million Jews), size of land area, geographical location (Israel is near strategic important areas, but is not itself a such), small economics, few raw materials etc. A country in the same series as Finland, Croatia, Latvia, Togo etc. What makes the door of White House operate like a mall’s revolving door for Israeli leaders and officials? Leaders of a basically insignificant small country. It would be naive to believe that it happens simply because of the “conflict” with Palestinians and that there are wealthy Jews in USA owning there casinos and media.
Israel started its political – military games in Iran, Ethiopia/Eritrea and Sudan already in the 60’s. The pressure and activity of troubles on Israel’s borders since Israel was founded were mostly not created by Arab nations. It is clear that Israel’s military, political aims have been and are something completely different than ruling and defending that little spot which officially (international perception of that) is Israel. If the higher end of estimated Israeli nukes (400) is true Israel is the world’s nuclear power number three. Would Israeli present and future leadership be ready to shrink to the league of countries of 5-8 million inhabitants, insignificant states, which would be the inevitable outcome of Israel making peace with Pals and neighbors plus allowing its nukes and other WMD’s disarmed. If it doesn’t happen this “show” goes on and on. Who will and can stop it? Israeli Jews certainly not – voluntarily.
[comment deleted: throwing around terms like “Arab Nazis” as if they’re anything more than smearmongering is offensive and not permitted here]
Egypt’s attack on Israel in 1973, encouraged by US Secretary of State Kissinger, was meant to lightly bloody the Israelis and push them to negotiate on the return of the Sinai. The Egyptians, once they crossed the Suez Canal, could have cut through ill prepared Israeli forces like a hot knife through butter – but, tellingly, they didn’t. The war had much in common with well choreographed theater, setting the stage for Sadat to negotiate a peace treaty with honor. I can’t help but think that the Egyptians didn’t push further because they were acting in concert with the Americans and that both knew that massive Israeli casualties would increase the likelihood of a nuclear attack. Golda Meir was a terrible Prime Minister, the worst Israel has ever had, but her decision here was right on the money – Israel’s continued survival was never at stake in 1973 and while she may have fretted about it, ultimately she knew this to be true and correctly kept Dayan in check.
@ pea: 3,000 Israeli soldiers died in an act of THEATER??!! The very idea is repulsive. It’s so easy 40 years later to engage in a disgusting act of revisionism & historical amnesia.
Disgusting revisionism? Disgusting yes. My Uncle was among the 3000 dead. Revisionism? Hardly. I notice Tom Segev’s book “1967” is in your Tikkun Olam Amazon bookstore. This extremely well documented book notes that the Egyptians stopped advancing despite the fact that they could have advanced farther with little or no resistance. But that wasn’t the point of Sadat’s action:
“It was aimed as a limited operation; the land was not my aim, at all. I wanted only to prove to the whole world that the Israeli theory of security would collapse and we could cross the Suez Canal and capture the Bar Lev line.”
ABC News: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rax-YKer-qE&feature=player_detailpage#t=298s
“Sadat’s peace overtures were defeated not because they lacked merit, but because Egypt was perceived as not having a military option to back them up. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger implicitly advised the Egyptians that they would be taken seriously only by starting a war. In February 1973, Sadat’s national security adviser, Hafiz Ismail, conveyed to Kissinger a proposal for a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel – a last-ditch attempt to avert military conflict. “I cannot deal with your problem unless it becomes a crisis,” Kissinger responded.
Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami at http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/the-lessons-of-the-1973-yom-kippur-war-by-shlomo-ben-ami#Z2Ij7v0KTyCCxxq7.99”
The Egyptians set up the Syrians to fail, helped the Americans land a fatal blow to Soviet influence in the Middle East and set the stage for the Camp David Accords. It’s at least plausible. That’s what I meant by “Theater.” I mean why did the Egyptians stop before reaching the Mitla Pass while most Israeli forces where pounding the Syrians in the North? Why did the Egyptians refuse Jordanian suggestions that they try and prevent Israeli forces from racing South after the Syrians were dealt with? Think about it…