Henry Kissinger
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Photo by Bloomberg
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During the Yom Kippur War, Israel could produce "small numbers" of nuclear weapons. After the conflict, U.S. intelligence estimated that the balance of conventional weaponry was in the Arabs' favor, so Israel would consider threatening them with nuclear weapons, and possibly even using them.

Such details can be found in documents on the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, classified until Thursday's release by the U.S. State Department's history division. The information is found in a publication known as "Foreign Relations of the United States."

The nearly 1,300 pages describe the October war and the efforts to end it. Among the key figures are U.S. President Richard Nixon, his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, Prime Minister Golda Meir, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, Egyptian President Anwar Saddat, King Hussein of Jordan and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. The Nixon administration held clandestine exchanges with Arafat through the head of the Black September group and Arafat's right-hand man, Ali Hassan Salameh.

Even though many of the details about Israel's political, military and intelligence failures in the war are known, the release of the documents adds an official seal to many uncomfortable facts. For example, the documents challenge Israel's nuclear ambiguity.

On November 27, 1973, about a month after the war, Nixon and Kissinger met with congressional leaders. The leader of the Democratic majority in the Senate, Mike Mansfield, asked: "Do Egypt and Israel have the capability to make nuclear weapons?"

Kissinger replied: "Israel has the capability to make small numbers. Not Egypt. And we don't think the Soviets have put them in. Should Israel brandish nuclear weapons, the Soviets would counter it and it would be very dangerous for Israel."

On the final day of the war, October 24, the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency issued a negative assessment about Israel's ability to beat Arab armies in the future.

"However well they come out of the present conflict, the Israelis can no longer be confident of quick, decisive victories in the future," wrote the DIA analysts, who had mistakenly believed several months earlier that the Israel Defense Forces would easily defeat the Arab armies.

According to the assessment, the IDF was no longer enough to assure Israel's security in the future. "Among the options are: an international guarantee of Israel's borders; a unilateral U.S. military guarantee of those borders; or a public declaration of Israeli determination to employ nuclear weapons to guarantee its territorial integrity," the analysts wrote.

The last option, according to the Pentagon's assessment, relied on the assumption "that Israel has or is soon to acquire nuclear weapons," and that Israel would seek to deter future Arab attacks by "their threatened use against such targets as Arab forces, cities, ports, holy places, and the Aswan High Dam could serve to deter future armed attacks. Such an avowed Israeli policy would occasion world-wide opposition. The U.S. would, therefore, find it extremely difficult to associate itself with such an Israeli policy. Meanwhile, the Arabs might be willing to attack, despite the deterrent threat. They might assume that (1 ) Israel will not carry out the threat, (2 ) they could succeed even if the Israelis used nuclear weapons, perhaps with the aid of other unconventional means of their own such as chemical or biological weapons, or (3 ) they would reap important benefits from the resultant international reaction should Israel carry out its threat."