A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Avner Cohen Reveals New Details on the Nuclear Aspect in the 1973 War

Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, and thus a lot of people are revisiting that event, and I'll be posting more on the subject tomorrow and next week; The Middle East Journal's Autumn issue will feature a piece by Israeli historian Uri Bar-Joseph on the intelligence surprise. Here, however, is another revelation worthy of note.

From the time of the war itself there have been rumors surrounding the early days of the war and the US global nuclear alert which followed, rumors suggesting that Israel considered using its nuclear arsenal. Avner Cohen, who has written more extensively than anyone about Israel's nuclear program, has donated his research materials to the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, and the collection reveals new details about the nuclear aspect of 1973. Cohen also has details in an op-ed in The New York Times,  "When Israel Stepped Back from the Brink."

As he notes:
In the four decades since the 1973 war, rumors have blossomed that Israel stood at the nuclear brink during that war’s darkest hours. A number of journalists and scholars have asserted that during a dramatic meeting in one of the war’s early days, a panic-stricken Mr. Dayan persuaded the Israeli war cabinet, including the prime minister, Golda Meir, to arm the country’s weapons with warheads for possible use.
Some analysts have even claimed that Israel used this “nuclear alert” to blackmail the Nixon administration into providing Israel with a huge airlift of military supplies. Although these stories were based on anonymous sourcing and circumstantial evidence, they have become a central part of the lore surrounding the Yom Kippur War.
In 2008, Cohen interviewed Arnan Azrayahu, who in 1973 was an advisor to Yisrael Galili, a Minister without Portfolio and close ally of Golda Meir. Cohen did not release the interview until after Azrayahu's death. According to his account:
Then, as the meeting adjourned, Mr. Dayan, casually leaning against the door and talking as if he were raising only a minor point, asked the prime minister to authorize Mr. Freier to initiate the necessary preparations for a “demonstration option” — that is, a demonstration of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability.
According to Mr. Azaryahu’s account, Mr. Dayan gave the impression that he’d already authorized such a demonstration and all that was needed was Ms. Meir’s approval. Mr. Dayan explained that an immediate authorization of preparatory steps for a nuclear blast would save precious time and allow the order to detonate a bomb to be executed rapidly should the need arise. At that point, Mr. Azaryahu told me, Mr. Galili and the deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon, spoke up to oppose Mr. Dayan’s plan, saying it was premature to consider the nuclear option and that Israel would prevail using conventional weapons.
Siding with her two senior ministers, the prime minister told Mr. Dayan to “forget it.” He responded by saying that he remained unconvinced but that he respected the prime minister’s decision. He then left the room.
So apparently Moshe Dayan did urge a nuclear demonstration, but was firmly overridden by Meir and her allies Galili and Allon. Avner Cohen's op-ed in effect confirms the discussion but also indicates the idea was quickly shot down.

Also see this report of the interview in the Times of Israel, and Cohen's introduction to the collection of interviews at the Wilson Center's website.

Here's a three-minute clip of the key part of Azrayahu's interview (Hebrew with English subtitles). (A longer video that appeared here for a while was apparently not intended for public release and has been taken down by request.)

1 comment:

Joas Wagemakers said...

I once read a funny story about this period that fits right in with what you write. Golda Meir is said to have phoned Henry Kissinger, telling him that Israel was losing the war and that if the US didn't help, the Israeli government might have to resort to using nuclear weapons. She is also said to have suggested to Kissinger that he, as a Jew, should work a bit harder for Israel than for other countries, to which Kissinger is said to have replied: "I'm the Secretary of State first, then I'm an American and only lastly am I a Jew." Golda Meir, who was known to be quite witty, allegedly replied: "That's alright. Here in Israel, we read from right to left anyway."
I've never been able to trace the source of this story. If anyone reading this does know the source, I'd be glad to hear it.