40 Years On |

In 1973, Dayan Suggested Israel Prepare Nukes for Action, but Golda Meir Refused

The PM vetoed the defense minister's suggestion of preparing nuclear weapons for possible action during the Yom Kippur War, according to a .

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

After decades of rumors and speculation, it turns out that the nuclear aspect of the Yom Kippur War was much more an internal Israeli matter than a strategic move, according to the Wilson Center, the Washington, D.C., research institute. Some raised the issue while others sought to bury it, but it seems not to have made it into the office of the chief of staff or the prime minister’s bureau. The only channel between then-Prime Minister Golda Meir and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger went through Washington rather than through the pleasant but largely irrelevant American ambassador to Tel Aviv at the time, Kenneth Keating. Simha Dinitz, then Israel’s ambassador to Washington, later stated that the nuclear issue never came up in his many talks with Kissinger during the war.

This week, Dr. Avner Cohen, a researcher specializing in the history of Israel’s nuclear program, made public a video of an interview he conducted last decade with Arnon (“Sini”) Azaryahu, confidant and aide to Yisrael Galili, a man of many secrets, minister in several governments and one of Golda Meir’s closest advisers; the video will appear on the Wilson Center’s website from Saturday.

The importance of the interview lies in its success in flying under the radar of the Director of Security of the defense establishment, an entity that zealously silenced anyone involved in Israel’s strategic programs. Presumably, the versions put forth by academics and journalists differ from those who were personally involved, who were actually there to see, hear and act. People on the outside are liable to attribute credibility to the latter, and credibility is the enemy of ambiguity.

In the interview, held at Azaryahu’s home on Kibbutz Yiron, he recalled the lunch he was supposed to have with Galili on October 7, the second day of the war, the day Defense Minister Moshe Dayan coined the phrase “the destruction of the Third Temple” and uttered other despairing statements. Lunch was delayed; the nuclear question was on the menu. The cabinet discussion of the war, with the participation of Meir, Dayan, Galili, Yigal Alon and Chief of Staff David (“Dado”) Elazar, was running over time. Azaryahu waited for Galili in the hallway and was surprised to see his friend, Shalhevet Freier, then director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. This time, Freier pretended not to see his old buddy.

“We were great friends. He was approaching and then I saw him turn suddenly. Instead of coming up to me and asking me how I was doing, he sat down on a bench down the hall. Now this was odd. Shalhevet and I were buddies, we would always talk when we bumped into each other, and here I’m watching him stop short when he sees me. Really strange, but I didn’t say anything. So he’s sitting there, maybe four benches down from me, and I’m sitting there, and we’re both obviously waiting. I think we must have sat there for about 45 minutes.

“Finally the door opens and Yisrael [Galili] comes out. He crosses the corridor as if coming toward me but then catches sight of Shalhevet and says to me, ‘Sini, wait a second, I forgot something I have to take care of.’ He turns on his heels, goes back into the room and stays there for about two minutes. We’re standing there in the hallway when the door opens again and Israel Lior, Golda’s military secretary, comes out and asks Shalhevet to come in. Then [Galili] says to me, ‘OK, Sini, we can go now.’”

Curiosity was killing Azaryahu, but Galili refused to spill his guts on an empty stomach. “He said, ‘I’m dying of hunger, don’t talk to me now. First let’s eat.’ We sat there silently till we finished our steaks and then he said to me, ‘You know, nothing like this has ever happened before.’ And then he told me why the cabinet discussion ran late: The news from the Golan was bad. The Syrians were advancing and we were unable to repulse them, and so on. Toward the end [of the cabinet meeting] Dado got a phone call from the ‘pit’ [the IDF’s underground command center]. They wanted him to get down there, there’s news from the Golan, not good news. So he goes down, and the rest are left sitting there. So they’re saying, ‘OK, that’s it, we’re done’ and they’re getting ready to leave, but then Moshe Dayan reaches the door, his hand is already on the handle and he’s getting ready to turn it, and he says, ‘Oh, I forgot the most important part.’ I thought it was because of the situation. I figured, well, we’ve been listening to Dado for half an hour, the situation is really bad, he’s got a lot on his mind. But then Dayan says, ‘Because we don’t have a lot of time or many options, I thought we should be prepared to show the nuclear option too.’”

According to Azaryahu, who was quoting Galili, Dayan added, “And therefore, so as not to waste any time, I decided before coming here to call Shalhevet Freier. He’s waiting outside.”

Turning to Golda, he is said to have added: “If you authorize it he’ll make all the necessary preparations so that if we decide to deploy it can be done within minutes rather than us spending half a day trying to do all the necessary prep work.”

In the interview, Azaryahu goes on to say: “So Moshe Dayan is suggesting saving a few hours of preparation, in other words, that the time factor could be really critical. He was waiting for Dado to leave. He waited until the end, Dado leaves. He wanted to give the impression that this was no big deal. It’s the end of the meeting, he’s halfway out the door and all we’re talking about is some preparations. He probably thought Dado would oppose him. Best to present the matter as something minor, to downplay the drama.”

The defense minister, says Azaryahu, “understood that the instructions [to Freier] must be given by both of them [he and the prime minister]. But Yigal [Alon] and Galili were startled. They started to yell, they were vehemently opposed to the notion. They said we’d we able to stop the enemy and hold the line, that our reservists were still en route to the Golan and that the ratio of troops would change very quickly, that there was no need to panic or generate panic, because were we to go that route that would be the end of the matter. And Golda, after hearing them out, sided with them and told Moshe to forget it. And Galili also told him to drop it. We’d fight conventionally, without the involvement of any other parties, directly or indirectly. Galili says to me, ‘The whole time, I noticed that Dayan was still holding onto the doorknob, as if we’re just standing around, just shooting the breeze.’”

According to Azaryahu, as evident in the Wilson Center’s publication, Dayan accepted the verdict. “He said, ‘Fine, if that’s your decision, I accept it. I’m going.’ But it’s not that he was convinced. He explicitly stated he was not persuaded, but if Golda was accepting responsibility that under no circumstances [was the bomb to be deployed], then he wouldn’t [give Freier conflicting instructions]. So that’s how it ended. He left by a different door; there were many doors going in different directions in that corridor.”

Azaryahu continues: “So then Galili comes out and sees Shalhevet sitting there. Later he told me, ‘I was afraid [Dayan] wouldn’t tell him [not to make the preparations]. That’s why I went back inside and said to Lior, “Listen, Moshe Dayan could forget to tell him not to start preparing. Call him in so that Golda can tell him in clear, simple words to forget about it.’ He wasn’t going to go to lunch before Lior called him in. Once he knew Golda would be talking to him his mind was at peace, because Moshe Dayan was liable to forget to tell him that we didn’t want this for the time being.”

Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan in the Knesset. Credit: AP

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