Israeli Ex-general: Setting Off Nuke in Sinai in 1967 Would've Hurt Israel

Three years before his death in 2004, former Chief of Staff Zvi Tzur discussed the 'Samson option.' ■ Newly-released files also reveal Israeli fears of Egyptian strikes on its nuclear reactor

Israeli troops advancing through Sinai during the Six-Day War in June 1967.
Anonymous/AP

Washington’s Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has published historical materials from Israel that support the assessment that in 1967 the government considered detonating a nuclear device in order to win the Six-Day War. The documents and interview transcripts also reveal that Israel feared Egyptian strikes on the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

For the 50th anniversary of the war, the center’s Nuclear Proliferation International History Project released declassified minutes from meetings of members of Levi Eshkol’s cabinet alongside transcripts of interviews conducted with senior figures who were involved in the war.

They include an interview with former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Zvi Tzur, who during the Six-Day War was an aide to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. Tzur, who died in 2004, gave the interview in 2001 to the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Center. In it, Tzur relates to an Israeli plan to detonate a nuclear device in Sinai during the war in order to deter the Arab armies.

Tzur said that he appointed a two-person committee to examine the issue, comprising a representative of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission and Brig. Gen. (res.) Itzhak Yaakov, then the head of the IDF’s research and development unit. The committee’s aim, Tzur told his interviewer, was to determine “if something [i.e., a test] can be done. ... I’m not talking about creating a weapon that would knock the world. I’m talking right now about the option of a test that would make people understand that we should be taken seriously.”

Tzur was referring to a plan that Yaakov detailed in an interview to Israeli nuclear history researcher Avner Cohen, which also appears on the Wilson website and which was featured in a June 3 article in The New York Times. There Yaakov said that Israel had prepared a secret contingency plan, code-named Shimshon, or Samson, that proposed assembling a nuclear device that could be exploded strictly for demonstrative purposes on a mountain peak in the Sinai Desert, to deter the Arab armies and force them to withdraw.

“Look, it was so natural,” Yaakov told Cohen. “You’ve got an enemy, and he says he’s going to throw you to the sea. You believe him. He says he’s going to throw chemical weapons on you. ... What are you looking for? Anything you can do to stop him. How can you stop him? You scare him. If you’ve got something you can scare him with, you scare him.”

The plan was to send in a small paratrooper force to divert the Egyptian Army in the desert so that a special team could prepare the explosion. Two large helicopters were to be used to transport the device and the team to the site.

Former President Shimon Peres also hinted at the existence of this plan in his memoirs, where he mentioned, inter alia, a proposal “that would have deterred the Arabs and prevented the war.”

Tzur, in his interview, added, “We checked the technical side of the issue. We didn’t check the political side, as there was no logic, I believe, to actually do it. If Shimon Peres seriously made such an offer— I find it odd. He couldn’t have offered it to Moshe Dayan, because after six hours of war, it was already behind us.”

Along with these interviews, the Wilson Center posted minutes from a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting of May 26, 1967, in which Prime Minister Eshkol also hinted at Israel’s nuclear capability. “Today four [Egyptian] airplanes flew over Israel,” Eshkol said. “We immediately telegrammed Abba Eban about it. The purpose of a certain weapon can be crucial in this matter, and I don’t mean something which is out of this world. It’s a weapon that exists in [other countries] in the hundreds and thousands.”

Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan during their visit to army installations on the West Bank, September 20, 1967.
Ilan Bronner, GPO

Tzur said in the interview: “When I came into office we already had what we had. We didn’t have what ... But you didn’t exactly know if it’s possible to make a demonstration out of it. According to him, the idea of carrying out a controlled explosion on the eve of the war in order to deter the Arab states was illogical.

“We would’ve destroyed everything we had. We would’ve been hurt badly. No one would believe a thing we say. And it’s true that we’ve checked. We’ve checked if we could even do anything. ... [but] When I appointed the committee on Monday [the second day of the war], the war has already started. In the evening we already knew there was no Egypt.

The Wilson documents also quote Ezer Weizman, the head of the IDF’s Operations Branch during the war, as warning that Egypt planned to attack Dimona “with at least 40 aircraft,” two weeks before the war began. To this can be added published reports of Israeli fears of an Egyptian attack on Dimona.

Cohen, who was behind the documents’ disclosure, told Haaretz that his goal was to present the general public with the “nuclear narrative” of the Six-Day War, in an effort to better explain the reasons for the war.

GPO