Did Israel Ever Consider Using Nuclear Weapons?

Newly declassified documents shine a light on the deliberations of Israel's leaders during the early days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

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Yossi Melman
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Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

Media outlets around the world have reported that state archive documents declassified this week showed that Israel's leadership considered using "drastic means" during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

On October 9, a day after Egypt repulsed Israel's counterattack on the southern front, prime minister Golda Meir convened a top-level discussion in her office.

The outlook was grim. Troop losses were high, and ammunition and weapons stores were running out. At one point, Meir blurted out that she had a "crazy idea."

That idea, however, was not a nuclear attack, but many believe a lightning visit to Washington to meet with U.S. president Richard Nixon. The visit was to be so secret that Meir advocated not even informing the cabinet. Defense minister Moshe Dayan supported her plan, but it was never implemented.

Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Prime Minister Golda Meir in the Knesset, July 26, 1972.Credit: AP Photo

At the same meeting, officials also discussed the option of having the air force bomb strategic sites in Damascus.

Was the "crazy idea" connected to a critical strike at Syria. It seems the answer is yes.

In another meeting - according to Hanna Zemer, the one-time editor of the newspaper Davar - Dayan spoke of the possibility that "the Third Temple," meaning the state, would be destroyed. Foreign news outlets have reported that Israel readied its nuclear weapons and even considered using them as a last resort.

The Dimona nuclear facility was completed in 1960. Those same foreign reports say Israel had several dozen nuclear weapons in October 1973, as well as the means to deliver them: French-made Mirage and U.S.-made Phantom aircraft and the Jericho missile, an Israeli improvement on a French model. All of these, the reports said, were at full readiness.

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh called his book on Israel's nuclear program "The Samson Option." The implication is that Israel would use atomic weapons if it viewed itself as facing certain, imminent destruction.

If these reports are accurate - and the documents released this week do not confirm them, but possibly only hint at them through portions blacked out by the military censor - this would be neither the first nor the last time Israel's leaders have discussed their so-called "doomsday weapons."

International researchers have posited that Israel had a nuclear device even before the 1967 Six-Day War.

In 1991, Israel again reportedly considered using atomic weapons in response to the Scud missile attacks launched by Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. Rightist ministers, including Yuval Ne'eman (a physicist involved in Israel's nuclear program), Rafael Eitan and Rehavam Ze'evi, urged Yitzhak Shamir's government to respond forcefully, but Shamir rejected Israeli military action out of hand.

In recent years, as Iran emerged as Israel's foremost threat, experts at home and abroad have raised the nuclear option once again. In lectures in Vienna and Berlin, and later in an ill-considered op-ed in The New York Times, historian Benny Morris has urged Israel's leaders to hit Iran with a nuclear bomb.

Thankfully, government officials on both left and right have thus far shown responsibility and stuck to the ambiguity policy instituted in 1961, under which Israel promised it would not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.

They know as well as anyone that the first country to do so will not only forfeit its seat among the community nations, but will likely cease to exist.



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