Flouting the nuclear taboo

Did Israel consider using ‘the bomb’ during the Six Day War?

David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres visiting the Dimona nuclear reactor (photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres visiting the Dimona nuclear reactor
(photo credit: DEFENSE MINISTRY)
THE SUCCESSFUL Israeli nuclear program has many fathers – statesmen, scientists and military men, such as Brig. Gen.
Yitzhak (Yicha) Yaakov, as reported this month in the international media. Its initiators were the country’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, his director general Shimon Peres, chief of staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Dayan and Prof. Ernst David Bergman, the founder and chairman of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC). Alongside were the “technicians,” which included hundreds of physicists, chemists, engineers and managers.
Over the years, motivated by ego and desire for self-publicity, Peres tried to claim sole fatherhood of the project. His share in the program includes being one of the architects who persuaded France to supply Israel with the nuclear reactor in Dimona.
Other than Peres, most of the others who were privy to the Dimona secrets maintained their silence, remaining loyal to Israel’s national security and their contractual obligation not to reveal the secrets.
The only one who could not control himself was Yaakov.
The Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Peace recently released documents related to the Israeli nuclear program, revealing evidence that some in the defense establishment seriously considered exploding an atomic bomb in the Sinai Peninsula in June 1967, in the days leading up to the Six Day War, to deter Egypt from launching a war against Israel.
The horrifying idea, which lived for just a short 24 hours, didn’t even reach the stage of being feasible.
The story, which gained headlines in Israel and worldwide – including The New York Times – is based on an interview and transcripts of conversations with Yaakov deposited at the Wilson Center under the somehow pretentious title of “The Avner Cohen Collection.”
The story also sheds new light on what happened behind closed doors during the investigations of Cohen and Yaakov, who were suspected of revealing state secrets 20 years ago.
The inquiry was led by “Malmab,” a special unit in the Defense Ministry in charge of information and physical security of the state’s security employees and sites, including the Dimona reactor. During the investigations, Malmab agents confiscated written and other materials. A senior security source tells The Jerusalem Report that the involved parties declared during the investigations that they had submitted all the materials in their possession, including copies, to the authorities. But, as the newly revealed documents in the Wilson Center show, not everything was disclosed.
Yaakov, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1926, joined the pre-statehood Palmach militia and later served in the IDF. After studying at the Haifa-based Technion, where he received a degree in engineering, he was appointed head of the IDF Research and Development unit. He later studied at MIT.
As part of his work, he became privy to the top secrets of Israel’s most sensitive weapon systems.
In 1957, France sold Israel the nuclear reactor that became operational three years later. Its original capacity was 24 megawatts, but according to foreign reports, Israel increased its power to 50 or even 75 megawatts. Uranium – the feed material, was supplied also, according to foreign reports, by France and later purchased legally from South Africa or, deceptively, from Belgium and the United States. According to these reports, within a few years, in 1966 or early 1967, Israel managed to reach the nuclear threshold to produce its first bomb.
As the “waiting” period before the war became prolonged, the nerves of the Israeli public became stretched.
The atmosphere was apocalyptic.
Many were terrified by the scenes of crowds in Arab capitals promising to “throw the Jews into the sea” and believed that Israel was on the verge of a second Holocaust.
But the top IDF echelon knew better. They knew the truth about Israel’s military superiority and the secret war plan to smash, with a surprise attack, the Egyptian air force and airfields. The IDF waited for the order, but the government, led by prime minister Levi Eshkol, was hesitant.
Meanwhile, as part of the war preparations, several scenarios and responses were drawn up that involved the possibility the Egyptian air force would attack the nuclear reactor (some reconnaissance flights had already been detected) or that missiles equipped with chemical or biological warheads would be launched against Israel’s cities.
Here enters Yaakov’s version, as recently published in an article in The New York Times. He claims a decision was made to prepare the atomic bomb Israel had developed.
The plan, he says, was code-named “Judgment Day.” Other sources talked about the “Samson Option” – the scenario under which Israel, if it felt an existential threat, would use the bomb as a last resort to destroy its enemies and die with them.
Peres, who at the time was a member of Knesset with no executive role, also hinted in that direction. In his memoirs, he revealed he had suggested an “operational way that would have deterred the Arabs and prevented a war.”
Yaakov also revealed that he was a member of a special and secret committee led by the former chief of staff Lt. Gen. Tzvi Tzur that also included a representative of IAEC, which is responsible for Israel’s nuclear program. The committee’s task was to review the bomb option and ramifications.
Haaretz journalist Amir Oren discovered, in 2011, that Tzur had given a testimony to Boaz Lev-Tov, a researcher at the Rabin Center in Tel Aviv.
According to Oren, the committee decided to conduct a preliminary review and Lt.
Col. Dov Tamari (who later became a major general) was summoned to participate in the deliberations. At the time, Tamari commandeered Sayeret Matkal, the IDF’s top-notch Special Forces unit, and was told to prepare his soldiers for a mission of transporting an “object.”
It can be assumed with certainty that such an “object” was “the bomb,” though it would be more accurate to talk about a crude nuclear device that had not been tested and might not work. A decision was made to load it onto a French-made transport helicopter.
According to Yaakov, he had flown with Tamari over Sinai to find a suitable, deserted site to prepare and deploy the bomb for detonation if the order were given. The site they selected was in Abu Agila, dozens of kilometers from the Israeli border.
Did Israel really intend to detonate the bomb in Sinai, if indeed it had one? Most experts are very skeptical. These deliberations were not even brought to the attention of the prime minister. In his testimony, Tzur said, “We were talking about a possibility, not that anyone thought of doing something.” Even Yaakov said he was skeptical that a decision to deploy a bomb would be made.
The nuclear policy is one of Israel’s most well-kept secrets and its last taboo. For years, details had been wrapped under a thick cloud of security and censorship ‒ until Yaakov decided to leave his mark on history.
After leaving the IDF, he worked for the Trade and Industry Ministry and then began his career in the private sector. Yaakov moved to New York and was among the first Israeli pioneers of hi-tech.
There he met Dr. Avner Cohen who had studied philosophy at Tel Aviv University and later settled in the US where he found his calling ‒ researching and exposing Israel’s nuclear secrets. While researching his book, “Israel and the Bomb,” he interviewed Israeli and American scientists, leaders and officials, and uncovered documents in archives. It was under these circumstances that he met Yaakov.
Cohen’s research was undoubtedly breaking new ground, but there was a problem ‒ his manuscript was censored in Israel.
Nevertheless, Cohen, who also has US citizenship, then violated Israeli law and published his book in the US. Fearing arrest, he refused to return to Israel and sought help from colleagues, including this writer.
After two years, he returned and was asked to give testimony, which he did at a police station and was then released. Cohen and his friends in high places fought a public battle, and eventually, despite strong opposition from the Malmab unit, the attorney general closed the case. In 2000, his book was published in Israel.
Malmab, headed at the time by Yehiel Horev, had obtained intelligence that Yaakov was chatty and spilling secrets to friends and journalists, as well as writing a book on the topic. Horev warned him to stop and Yaakov promised to comply but it was a lie. Soon after, Yaakov gave an interview to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, arranged by Cohen.
Meanwhile, Yaakov completed his draft manuscript and gave 18 copies to Israeli and non-Israeli friends, including Cohen.
Realizing that Yaakov was determined to spill the beans to glorify himself, Horev ordered his arrest in 2001.
Yaakov was indicted and charged with espionage and exposing state secrets with no authorization. Horev believed the punishment should be severe, but Yaakov rallied powerful friends who created a favorable atmosphere around him. The media began to depict Horev as a “public enemy,” a vindictive official seeking revenge on an old and sick man. The old-boy networking strategy had succeeded.
Yaakov was cleared by a Tel Aviv court of serious espionage charges, but was found guilty on one minor count of transfering secret information without authorization.
He was sentenced to two years in prison, in addition to the one year he had already spent under house arrest at a hotel next to the hospital where he was receiving medical treatment.
He recovered and lived another 12 years until his death in 2013, at the age of 87.
Already during the probe, a worldwide operation was underway to trace and collect the 18 copies of his manuscript. Horev was furious. His biggest concern was that one of the copies would reach the American intelligence community, which had always been keen to gain knowledge about Israel’s nuclear program.
Indeed, at least one copy of the manuscript was not found. Yaakov and his conspirators promised to assist the investigation to recover all the copies, tapes and whatever documents they had. But now we know the truth – Israel’s nuclear secrets found their way to the Wilson Center.
In hindsight, one must admit that Horev, who left public service a decade ago, was right. Yaakov committed a serious crime.
It can be assumed that US law-enforcement agencies would not have tolerated any person accused of a similar crime. In the US, that person would have been severely punished.
Israel, however, is a merciful country, especially if you are a well-connected person with access to the corridors of power. Take Mordechai Vanunu, a low-key worker at Dimona who was sentenced to 18 years in jail for revealing secrets about the reactor to the British newspaper The Sunday Times. Even now, 14 years after completing his entire prison term, he is not allowed to leave the country.
One final note: Cohen is among the very few Israeli experts who has advocated for a change in the country’s nuclear policy.
Known as the “ambiguity policy,” officials neither confirm nor deny that the Jewish state has nuclear weapons. He argues that the policy cannot be reconciled with democratic values and creates “negligence toward the public.” He also claims that such ambiguity damages Israeli interests because, by admitting that it possesses nuclear weapons, Israel would gain international acceptance and legitimacy.
He is dead wrong. The ambiguity policy is one of the brightest strategies Israel has ever employed. It has won support from the US, which has turned a blind eye to Israeli nuclear issues, while repelling Iranian accusations that while Israel already has nuclear weapons, the world is picking on them.
The Defense Ministry did not answer questions about whether it intends to open an investigation into who leaked the secrets to the Wilson Center. The IAEC declined to comment.
Avner Cohen said in response: “In general, I have made no commitment, pledge, promise or anything of that nature about my research material. Indeed, under no circumstances, would I have provided anybody – let alone security organizations – access to my legally owned research material.
“I have no classified material,” he added.
Ronen Bergman said in response: “For 17 years I’ve refused to talk about the case. I too was surprised when first The New York Times, and then the Woodrow Wilson Center, published the transcripts. I hoped that one day it would be me who would publish this dramatic story of the ‘Samson Operation.’ Nevertheless, even now, the censor prevents us from running the story based on our sources – though it’s the same story, interviewee and transcripts.
“Personal frustration aside, there is a more important issue: the failure of the censorship to prevent publication. We can check now whether the warnings of the censor and Malmab over publishing the story would bring about Israel’s demise. Were these warnings correct? “Here we are. The information is now out, it’s public domain and nothing has happened.”