'The De Facto Coup D’état': When Moshe Dayan Tried to Steal Israel's First Nuclear Device

A recently published book in the United States sheds light on a mysterious and dramatic incident in the history of the Israeli nuclear project, detailing how Yitzhak (Yicha) Yaakov was sent to take control of a nuclear device south of Tel Aviv. The real target, though, was much larger and even more important: the prime minister

Adam Raz
Adam Raz
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Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan onboard a helicopter while touring army installations in the West Bank, September 1967.
Then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan onboard a helicopter while touring army installations in the West Bank, September 1967.Credit: Ilan Bruner/GPO
Adam Raz
Adam Raz

A few years ago, a book was published in the United States that deals, among other things, with the history of the Israeli nuclear project. The author lives in the United States and there have been no reviews of the book anywhere. Assuming that the security services in Israel were not aware of its existence, up until a few days ago the only copy in Israel was in the hands of your correspondent. It is hoped that following the publication of this article, more information concerning the fascinating and mysterious affair revealed in its pages will come to light.

In the book, the author recounts his personal history, focusing on the nuclear history of the State of Israel. A fascinating part of the book deals with the nuclear aspect of the Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars, describing the author’s role in the nuclear project.

An additional key section of the book describes an unknown nuclear dimension from the days immediately preceding the Six-Day War. And since the book was published abroad, it is possible to write about it in Israel as a “foreign source.” The Defense Ministry’s security authority – known by its Hebrew acronym, Malmab – and the censors can purchase the book, just like any reader.

This is a story that may sound like fiction – a terrifying thriller, even – but the author’s familiarity with the details is credible.

>> The truth behind Israel's desperate plan to set off a nuclear device to save itself in 1967 <<

He stresses that he has in his possession diaries and notes from the period, but they are not continuous and memory is not perfect. However, the information he gives shows without a doubt that his story – even if certain details are not precise – includes, in my opinion, more than a grain of truth.

Additional sources – among them the testimony of Yitzhak (Yicha) Yaakov, which was published recently in the United States – also lend support to the credibility of the book.

Amid the deluge of publications marking the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, this story should also be told.

On the eve of the war in 1967, the author – at the time a student, following his military service – was already working at the Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona. When he started working at the reactor a few years earlier, the defense authorities trained him for the position of nuclear radiation inspector and he was soon assigned to “Institute 2.” According to various foreign sources, this is one of the most sensitive and secret places at the NNRC, where plutonium is separated (and which, according to foreign sources, Israel has enough of to build a nuclear bomb).

In his book, the author attests to his firsthand familiarity with accidents that occurred at the reactor, ones we know about from other sources.

It should be stressed that the author was not opposed to the nuclear project: He worked at the reactor and saw the equipping of Israel with nuclear weaponry as a moral obligation. He describes his work at length, and details his activity as a radiation inspector during the years prior to the Six-Day War.

‘A civil war’ at the fort entrance

The "Tegert fort" at Gedera being constructed in 1940. Credit: Public Works Department/State Archives

The author has titled the most fascinating chapter in his book “The De Facto Coup D’état,” which he links to the struggles between David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan (who at the time were both in the opposition left-wing party Rafi, which was established in 1965) and then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol. The author relates that during the period before the war broke out, he received instructions from his manager (called “Merkaz,” and whose name he did not know) to accompany a nuclear device to a location somewhere south of Tel Aviv.

The author notes that the site to which the device had been transferred is located 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) south of the city; this is more or less the distance between Tel Aviv and Gedera, to which, we know from other sources – including Yaakov’s recently published testimony – the nuclear device was moved.

Additional confirmation of the reliability of this can be found in the author’s statement to the effect that the events about which we will elaborate took place inside a “Tegart fort” (part of a chain of forts built for the British Mandatory Police at the initiative of an officer called Charles Tegart), which apparently was then used by the Defense Ministry.

The author does not specifically name the location, but I believe his description resembles with remarkable accuracy the Qatra police compound near Gedera, which for years had served the defense forces.

The author spent the last three days of May 1967 in the large police building, along with dozens of security personnel, who had no knowledge of what was hidden in one of the rooms. The author writes that the nuclear device was in Gedera, while the “trigger” – a kind of atomic detonator – was kept at a different location. The author also states that ahead of one possible order or another, aircraft stood on standby at a nearby airport to transport the nuclear device.

The routine for the author and the security guards changed suddenly on the night of June 1 – the day of Dayan’s appointment as defense minister and four days before the outbreak of hostilities.

Shortly after Dayan’s appointment was announced, Yaakov reported to the location. At the time, he was head of the weapons research and development program in the Operations Directorate – according to foreign sources, the branch responsible for developing Israel’s unconventional weaponry – and one of the overseers of the nuclear realm.

Yaakov demanded to be let into the compound to take over command. The author, who together with the guards was responsible for securing the compound – and especially the nuclear device – refused, and Yaakov departed in protest. To himself and his subordinates, the author explained that there had presumably been a misunderstanding.

Yitzhak (Yicha) Yaakov. Went to the compound at Gedera on June 1, 1967, and demanded that he be given joint command of the nuclear device.Credit: Moti Kimche

However, to the surprise of the author and the security guards, Yaakov returned the next morning – this time with truckloads of armed soldiers. In no uncertain terms, he demanded that he take charge of the compound.

The author, who stuck to his refusal, vividly describes the heated atmosphere that quickly developed. He recounts Yaakov’s explicit threats, to the effect that if he were not allowed in, he would return with tanks. His instructions to his subordinates were to use live fire in order to break through (the compound was designed to prevent hostile takeover from the outside). It was clear to the astonished security guards that this was, as one of them said, nothing less than “a civil war.”

The author quickly contacted his superior, “Merkaz,” who was already aware of the events and ordered him to await instructions. These came the next morning, and the order was clear: allow Yaakov to take joint command of the nuclear device.

The author relates that the events reminded him of the book “Seven Days in May” (1962), which depicted an attempted military coup against the president of the United States.

The author – who, as noted, called this chapter “The De Facto Coup D’état” – writes that the guards of the nuclear device in the three days prior to Dayan’s appointment were civilians. According to the author, these guards operated under the direction of then-Police Minister Eliyahu Sasson and, therefore, were under the responsibility and authority of Prime Minister Eshkol, the leader of Mapai, and were not subordinate to the new defense minister, Dayan.

The replacement of the guards by soldiers is interpreted by the author as a move whereby Dayan and Yaakov expropriated the responsibility for the nuclear device and its supervision from the civilian authority (Eshkol) and transferred it into the hands of the military, with the clear aim of being “the landlord.”

The author relates that he met with his boss, “Merkaz,” after the Six-Day War. The latter was frustrated and expressed his dissatisfaction at the transfer of responsibility for the nuclear device to the army.

The author’s story is seemingly full of details relating to other publications we know of concerning the nuclear dimension of the war: from the proposal by Shimon Peres to conduct a nuclear test instead of going to war, to Yaakov’s trial at the start of the 2000s, which was covered extensively in the media, and oral and written testimony he gave about his role in events prior to the nuclear test (which did not happen). Details in this book also touch on the international context of the Israeli nuclear program.

Avner Cohen, a onetime Israeli nuclear researcher who now lives in the United States, last month published conversations he had with Yaakov in 1999, which touched upon the preparations for conducting a nuclear test on the eve of the war.

Reading the extracts from Yaakov’s recollections that Cohen published on the Wilson Center website, we find that, as part of the preparations for the test, there was “some problem” with the transfer of the “device.”

David Ben-Gurion, center, next to Levi Eshkol, Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan in the 1960s. A putsch in three stages.Credit: Avraham Vered/IDF Archive in the Defense Ministry

Yaakov also noted that the meeting point with the elite Sayeret Matkal unit, which was responsible for carrying out some of the stages in the test, was supposed to take place “in the old police station in Gedera” – but he gave no further details.

The real target – Eshkol

Dayan’s appointment to the position of defense minister was part of a three-phase effort to implement a putsch against the Eshkol government, led by the people in Rafi, the political party that had broken away from Mapai two years earlier – Ben-Gurion, Dayan himself and Peres.

One of the main reasons for this clash between Ben-Gurion and Eshkol’s people had to do with the nuclear issue: Ever since the War of Independence, Ben-Gurion, Dayan and Peres had sought to turn Israel into a formal nuclear power. According to various publications, Eshkol held an entirely different view, shared by people in his government: Israel had to acquire knowledge so it would have the possibility of becoming a state with nuclear capability. However, it did not need to become a nuclear state (i.e., conduct a test, declare its nuclear capability and include nuclear weaponry in its military arsenal).

Eshkol believed that completion of the nuclearization process should be completed only if other nations in the region pursued this path. In the early 1960s, this dispute found a solution with the famous nuclear ambiguity compromise, whereby Israel continued its nuclear developments but did not take any measures that would make it a nuclear state.

Who really held the keys?

On May 28, 1967, a few days before Dayan became defense minister, according to foreign sources Israel’s first nuclear device was completed (current Haaretz Editor Aluf Benn was the first to discuss this in his 1991 Hebrew article “The big projects”). On that very same day, according to the narrative in the book under discussion here, the device was moved to the location south of Tel Aviv and near Gedera – which the author of the book makes explicit is the Qatra police compound.

Peres, who according to foreign publications was involved in the nuclear project even though he was in the opposition, suggested making demonstrative use of the device, nullifying the ambiguity policy and confirming Israel as a nuclear state, like the other five nuclear states at the time. It is possible to read about the operational aspects of the plan in Yaakov’s recently published statements, which shed light on events that were unknown until now.

It is interesting to note that a few days after the Six-Day War, the Americans were concerned about Dayan’s soaring prestige in the eyes of the Israeli public, and linked this to the strengthening of the pro-nuclear group in Israeli politics. An internal memo from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv noted that “It would be fair to assume that Israel will be pushed closer to the nuclear track and development of the means necessary for nuclear weaponry.”

How is the author’s fascinating story connected to the Rafi politicians’ pro-nuclear position? And how is the attempt to carry out a (partially successful) putsch against Eshkol and his policy connected to what is described in Yaakov’s recollections as an attempt to carry out a nuclear test?

These questions cannot, of course, be answered in full on these pages (I discuss them in more detail in my 2015 book “The Struggle Over the Bomb”). It is necessary to distinguish between the author’s report as a participant and his interpretation of the events, but in his book he does propose an unambiguous answer: “The finger on the nuclear device was no longer that of the elected civilian official.”

In other words, one of the manifestations of the political putsch against Eshkol was the attempt to wrest control of the nuclear device from the prime minister.

The author’s observation about the possibility of a miniature “civil war” surrounding the struggle for the nuclear device in the center of Israel raises difficult and fascinating questions about the issue of control of the nuclear project. Did the tense drama that was described by Eshkol’s military secretary, Yisrael Lior, as a “bloodless coup,” also include an attempt to take control of the nuclear device?

It is impossible to ignore Yigal Allon’s unambiguous statement shortly before his death in 1980 when talking about the nuclear policy advocated by Dayan and Peres (who were both bitter foes of Allon): “I don’t see any reason to flex a nuclear muscle before the Arab world,” he said during an interview at the Leonard Davis Institute. “I don’t see any reason! ... I think this is infantile strategic political thinking, to the point of disqualifying these people from being at the top of the political and strategic decision-making pyramid. So much so that I hope I never have to say this publicly. To my mind this outlook is enough to disqualify a person!”

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