Israel Had a Plan to Nuke Sinai in 1967. But How Close Did It Really Get to Pushing the Button?

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Egyptian POWs in 1967 in Al Arish.
Egyptian POWs in 1967 in Al Arish.Credit: Shabtai Tal/GPO

The disclosure that Israel had a plan to conduct a nuclear test in Sinai in 1967 suggests a new avenue of investigation into the causes of the Six-Day War.

Avner Cohen, the historian of Israeli nuclear history and policy who last week revealed details of an Israeli plan to detonate an atomic device to deter the Arab armies, believes the war’s “nuclear narrative” is “its last secret.”

In an article on the website of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, which from this week features various documents relating to the 1967 war in a nuclear context, Cohen wrote, “Recent Israeli-based historical research has shed new light on the obscure nuclear dimension of the 1967 crisis. Over the last two decades, more evidence on the role Dimona played in shaping Israeli and Egyptian perceptions of each other has surfaced,” referring to the southern Israeli town where a nuclear plant is located.

An Israeli soldier stands guard over Egyptian prisoners in El Arish, Sinai, during the Six-Day War in June 1967. Credit: Shabtai Tal / GPO

Speaking to Haaretz on Sunday, Cohen explained that by delving into Israeli nuclear policy in the context of the Six-Day War, he sought to enable additional study by researchers, including the significance of Dimona to the June 1967 conflict. Until now, because of censorship and concern for state security, there hasn’t been much public discussion of this angle.

Nevertheless, Cohen notes, that same “nuclear narrative” doesn’t establish for a fact that Israel was poised to or considered using nuclear weapons during the Six-Day War. On the Wilson website, he wrote that he ultimately supports the view “that on the eve of the 1967 War, Israel’s leadership was not seriously considering conducting ... a nuclear demonstration.”

Adam Raz, an Israeli historian and the author of the (Hebrew) book “The Struggle for the Bomb,” told Haaretz that the new details about the nuclear plan will not “rewrite the history of the Six-Day War.”

He added, “The fact that there were people who proposed a nuclear test, apparently around June 1, 1967, is something that’s been known for many years. There have been many articles and studies published about that.” But, he noted, the matter never reached the desk of Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, which is why “the nuclear issue was not a central feature of the war and its operational aspect never existed.”

Raz says the remarks by the late Brig. Gen. (res.) Yitzhak Yaakov, known as Yatza, to the effect that Israel had a secret contingency plan that included a nuclear blast on a peak in Sinai, ought to be read with caution.

“We’re talking about general preparations that they made in the event that. ... It definitely wasn’t at a stage where someone was already standing with the wires connected, waiting to push the button,” Raz said. “It should not be understood from this that Israel was close to a nuclear test in 1967. On the contrary, it was an idea that was abandoned. As such, there’s no story here.”

According to Raz, “People draw up plans. There were endless numbers of them. But the decision-makers are the ones who make the decisions in the end. At no stage were they even close to conducting a nuclear test of the type Yatza described.”

Cohen writes similarly in his article, saying the plan “was more a technical-theoretical exercise for an unlikely scenario than a genuine, military contingency plan.”

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