Analysis |

How the Fear of Israeli Nukes Helped Seal the Egypt Peace Deal

The link between Sadat’s decision to come to Jerusalem 40 years ago and Israel’s nuclear program

Dan Sagir
Dan Sagir
Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in Jerusalem, 1977.
Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin in Jerusalem, 1977.Credit: Yaakov Saar, GPO
Dan Sagir
Dan Sagir

Is there a connection between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s decision to cross the Rubicon in November 1977 and come to Jerusalem, 40 years ago this week, and Israel’s undeclared nuclear capability?

The years that elapsed between May 1967 to March 1979 constituted an intense period in Israeli-Egyptian relations, one that encompassed three wars and culminated in a peace treaty and diplomatic relations. Numerous historical studies, biographies and memoirs of Egyptian and Israeli decision-makers have dealt with the period in question. However, there has been almost no discussion of the strategic impact of Israel’s nuclear capability on the development of the Israeli-Arab conflict in general, and on Egypt in particular.

When research has dealt with Israel’s secret nuclear program, it has focused mainly on its history, and on the Israeli policy of nuclear “ambiguity.” Few scholars have looked at the strategic impact of nuclear weapons through the prism of the military confrontations that arose during the course of the Mideast conflict. One reason for this is that this field of research is beset by problems of access to relevant sources, both in Israel and in the Arab countries.

Israel achieved its nuclear capability in the late 1960s, according to foreign sources; over the five past decades it has become a de facto nuclear state. The question of interest here is whether, and to what degree, Israel’s nuclear status was a factor in Egypt’s decision to abandon the military path in the conflict with Israel, and turn to diplomacy.

Under Nasser, Egypt considered, and even tried, a number of options aimed at halting Israel’s nuclear program or mounting an Arab strategic response to it. These efforts included seeking diplomatic intervention from Washington; attempts to acquire “off-the-shelf” nuclear arms from the Soviet Union and China; plans to bomb the Dimona reactor from the air during the next war; efforts to develop an Egyptian nuclear weapon; and attempts to develop nuclear arms with Libyan cooperation or funding (“the Arab bomb”).

These strategies were all dead ends, for a variety of reasons, but space limitations prevent me from expanding on them here. It is clear that they were well known to Anwar Sadat, a senior figure in the Nasser regime who succeeded him as Egypt’s president in 1970. Sadat, as president, made few public references to Israel’s nuclear capability. Like Nasser during certain periods, the then-new Egyptian president put Israel’s nuclear ambiguity to good use by keeping a low profile on the nuclear issue, limiting internal pressure on the regime to address Israel’s strategic advantage. Sadat took an approach – one that would be articulated in later years by Egyptian journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal – that treated Israel’s nuclear status as largely “irrelevant” to the conflict.

Against this background, Egypt under Sadat invested heavily in developing conventional military capabilities that might be critical in the next confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces: surface-to-air missiles to defend against the Israel Air Force, anti-tank missiles to counter the Armored Corps, and amphibious capabilities to enable a quick crossing of the Suez Canal. Sadat essentially froze the Egyptian nuclear program and devoted extensive resources toward preparing the Egyptian army to overrun the Bar-Lev Line and seize parts of the Sinai from Israel. In October 1973, Egypt, together with Syria, went to war against Israel with the aim of reopening the Suez Canal, rehabilitating the cities flanking it and, ultimately, forcing Israel to negotiate over the Sinai’s return to Egypt.

Breaking a deadlock

It is now clear, from a historical perspective, that while the Yom Kippur War was a full-scale war, the Egyptian political echelon nevertheless set limited goals for its army. Sadat aimed to break the diplomatic deadlock and draw Israel and the United States into negotiations over Sinai. The war erupted a few years after Israel, according to foreign reports, became a de facto nuclear state, but Sadat and his military advisers correctly judged that a war on the Suez front and in the Sinai would not elicit from Israel a nuclear response, or even a threat of one.

This “accurate reading” by Egypt of Israel’s nuclear deterrence goals accorded with the conclusions of a 1971 study that, two years after Israel completed, according to foreign reports, the development of its military nuclear capability, analyzed the potential strategic implications of the country’s nuclear status for the Arab world. The study, written by Fuad Jabber and published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies under the title “Israel and Nuclear Weapons,” was translated into Arabic and garnered considerable attention at the time in the Arab world. Jabber was the first scholar to note a possible relationship between the stalemate reached in the conventional armed struggle against Israel, the fear of Israel’s weapons of mass destruction, and a potential move toward diplomacy.

In the book’s concluding chapter, he wrote: “With the realization that Israel cannot be militarily defeated, the rationale behind the permanent state of war, economic blockade, and policy of non-acceptance and non-recognition might be expected to break down. Moreover, whatever tendencies toward recognition and negotiations may already exist in the Arab world would be enormously strengthened.”

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman in Haifa, 1979.Credit: Chanania Herman, GPO

Literature analyzing Sadat’s decision to try to achieve Egypt’s objectives in the conflict with Israel via diplomacy points to number of domestic, regional and international considerations. The main conclusion reached by scholars is that Egyptian strategy in those years was shaped primarily by an array of economic and strategic constraints, and by constraints arising from the country’s status in the Arab world.

The years following the Yom Kippur War were marked by growing Egyptian public debate over the price being paid in the ongoing conflict with the Zionist state. The argument that gained currency was that, while the struggle was pan-Arab, the sacrifices were mainly being made by Egypt. The military buildup in the region, the arms race and the increasingly destructive power of the weapons available made Egyptians aware of the dangers involved in escalating the conflict with Israel. To these issues were added concerns about entering the nuclear age. Egypt’s educated class was aware of the analyses – disseminated via journals and books in the Arab world – according to which Egypt was highly vulnerable to a nuclear strike. The population’s dense concentration in the Nile Valley, its total dependence on the Nile for water, and the huge collection of reservoirs beyond the Aswan Dam, expose Egypt not only to the possibility of harsh blows, but to annihilation.

The Arab public was generally convinced that Israel would be ready to use weapons of mass destruction should it find itself in a desperate situation, and it had little doubt Israel possessed such weapons. Arab experts on Israel explained, via the media, that escalating the confrontation with Israel to the nuclear level could potentially lead to a different outcome from that of escalation of the cold war: In the superpower arena, the arms race had already led to a balance of terror and had curbed the powers’ willingness to provoke each other, out of concern that someone might “press the button.” In the local conflict, however, Israel might fear potential annihilation in the event of an Arab victory, even in a conventional war. It was therefore necessary to assume that Israel would not be deterred from escalation, even to the nuclear level. Widespread discussion of an Israeli “Masada” or “Samson” complex only fueled these concerns.

A distinction should be made between the fears harbored by the Egyptian public regarding Israel’s nuclear capability, and the impact of that capability on Sadat’s decision-making process. Common to both, however, was a desire to reduce Egypt’s involvement in the Israeli-Arab conflict. Following the Yom Kippur War, Cairo was forced to conclude that its efforts to regain the Sinai should be conducted on the diplomatic plane and with American assistance.

In his 1981 book “The Battle for Peace,” Ezer Weizman, Israel’s defense minister during the Israel-Egyptian peace talks, discusses remarks by high-level Egyptian officials about Israel’s nuclear capability. He quotes Egypt’s then-minister of war Mohamed Abdel Ghani el-Gamasy: “You have nuclear arms, or at least a nuclear option. Thought should be given to signing a non-proliferation [treaty] for this kind of weapon.”

Weizman heard similar comments from Egypt’s then-prime minister, Mustafa Khalil. In this regard, Weizman wrote: “The Arab world, including Egypt, is very concerned about the possibility that Israel has a nuclear option. Perhaps this possibility played a certain role in the considerations that guided President Sadat on his way to Jerusalem. Whatever the case may be, everyone seems concerned by the possibility that the 1980s will find the Middle East under the atomic shadow.”

Historian Avner Cohen, writing some years later, presented a slightly different version of the one set forth by Weizman in his book. According to Cohen, Weizman related that on the first evening of Sadat’s historic November 1977 visit to Israel, the Egyptian president himself mentioned to Weizman that Israel’s nuclear capability was one of the factors behind his decision to make peace with Israel. Cohen states that Weizman reaffirmed his account in many personal communications with him. In a June 1990 conversation on the topic between Cohen and Mustafa Khalil, the latter confirmed that account.

Later in his book, Weizman interpreted the remarks made by the senior Egyptian figures. He wrote that the region’s potential entry into the nuclear age was clearly a cause of alarm in the Arab world and raised new considerations. It might, once and for all, put an end to the Arabs’ hope of annihilating Israel. Awareness was dawning among some Arab leaders that Israel must not be pushed against a wall and induced – in desperation and perhaps against its will – to use nuclear arms.

Additional evidence of the importance that the Egyptian president attached to Israel’s nuclear capability – or of his fear of seeing nuclear arms introduced into the Mideast conflict – was provided by Shimon Peres in one of the former president’s last interviews in the Israeli media before his death. According to Peres, speaking with Channel 2 news in May 2016, the then-deputy prime minister Yigael Yadin joined Sadat on his way from the airport to Jerusalem. During the course of their conversation, Yadin asked Sadat: “Why, in the early days of the Yom Kippur War, didn’t you proceed toward the Sinai passes?” Sadat’s answer, according to Peres, was: “You have nuclear arms. Haven’t you heard?”

Egypt's President Anwar Sadat shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin as U.S. President Jimmy Carter looks on (center at Camp David, Maryland, September 1978.Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Egypt’s decision to abandon armed conflict in favor of diplomacy and to sign a peace treaty with Israel in exchange for the Sinai Peninsula’s return to Egyptian sovereignty, can be traced to – among other things – a recognition that from Egypt’s point of view the military path had reached a dead end. In domestic-political terms, the economic and other costs borne by Egypt for its wars with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, as well as Egypt’s own achievements in the early days of the war, are what enabled Sadat to enter into peace negotiations aimed at restoring the Sinai to Egypt. Israel’s image in Egyptian minds as a nation with nuclear weapons – the conditions for whose use could not be predicted – also helped the camp that favored Sadat’s peace efforts.

During the Israeli-Egyptian peace negotiations of September 1978, the nuclear issue went almost unmentioned. When the Egyptians tried, during the early days of the Camp David summit, to raise the topic of Israel’s potential nuclear disarmament, the Americans dismissed it for fear that discussing the issue would seriously hurt the talks’ chances of success. At the same time, however, they used the nuclear issue to pressure Israel to reach an agreement.

Haaretz columnist Yoel Marcus wrote later that, during the Camp David talks, President Jimmy Carter pressured the Israelis with the following threat: “If you don’t sign, you won’t have Dimona.” In effect, Carter was threatening to withdraw U.S. support of Israel’s nuclear posture, which had been granted by President Richard Nixon in 1969, if Prime Minister Menachem Begin refused to sign the agreement.

In the years after the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord was signed, Cairo adopted a policy that strives to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction – a policy it tried for decades to advance in international forums. In 1980, Egypt ratified the Nonproliferation Treaty. A year later, President Hosni Mubarak adopted the vision of a nuclear-free Middle East as the primary Egyptian strategy for dealing with the Israeli nuclear program. Over the last few decades, Egypt’s diplomatic activity on this issue has focused, unsuccessfully, on forcing Israel to sign the NPT, which would place its nuclear facilities under the monitoring of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Here a word is in order on the other Arab confrontation states’ attitude toward reports of Israel’s nuclear capability during the first decade after that capability became an issue. Syria under Hafez al-Assad adopted a policy of disregard and containment, relying on the Soviet Union’s extended nuclear deterrence umbrella. By contrast, Libya under Muammar Gadhafi and Iraq under Saddam Hussein launched their own nuclear weapon development programs.

As to the more general question regarding the impact of Israel’s nuclear capability on the development of the Arab-Israeli conflict between May 1967 and March 1979, I believe that the few examples presented here support the argument that the nuclear capability attributed to Israel, by virtue of its reported existence and despite its covert nature, affected the conflict’s dynamics from both sides, from the moment it emerged. The events of that period shaped Israel’s nuclear deterrence as well as the impact it had on the Arab states in the ensuing decades.

Dan Sagir wrote his doctoral dissertation, “Israel’s Nuclear Deterrence Posture and Its Effects on the Arab-Israeli Conflict – 1967-2017,” at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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