This Day in Jewish History |

1973: Moshe Dayan Allegedly Suggests Israel Demonstrate Its Nuclear Capacity

It was the darkest day of the Yom Kippur war and whatever the purpose of the alleged proposal, Golda Meir, reportedly, instantly struck it down.

David Green
David B. Green
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Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (l) shakes hands with Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan in Tel Aviv, Israel on Nov. 5, 1973.
Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir (left) shakes hands with Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan in Tel Aviv, Israel on Nov. 5, 1973.Credit: WikiCommons
David Green
David B. Green

On October 7, 1973, the second, and darkest, day of the Yom Kippur War, a panicky Defense Minister Moshe Dayan proposed to Prime Minister Golda Meir that the time had come for Israel to “prepare” to make a “nuclear demonstration.” That, at least, is what one of the other participants in a war-cabinet meeting reported after emerging from the premier’s office that day.

Israel has never officially commented on its military nuclear capacity, though it has been widely assumed to have had "the bomb" for decades. By 1973, Israel was reported by foreign sources to be in possession of some 10 to 20 nuclear warheads.

It has been alleged that Israel prepared a number of these bombs for potential use during the war, in case the country was at risk of being vanquished.

Both Time magazine, in 1976, and journalist Seymour Hersh, 15 years later, reported on how Golda Meir issued orders to demonstrably arm a number of missiles - either to serve as a warning and deterrent to the Arab enemy, or to “blackmail” the United States into expediting the airlift of critical arms to replace those destroyed during the early hours of the war.

The 'Third Temple' is in danger

Historian Avner Cohen, whose books include "The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb," is convinced, however, that Israel's leadership acted more responsibly than that. Three years ago, he posted an extensive account on the website of the Wilson Center Nuclear Proliferation International History Project of his 2008 interview with Arnan (Sini) Azaryahu, the longtime aide to Yisrael Galili.

Credit: YouTube

Galili, a close adviser to Golda Meir, had been a member of Labor and veteran army officer and had been present at the October 7 meeting with Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan, after which he immediately related what he heard to Azaryahu.

The meeting took place on the afternoon of October 7 at Meir’s office within the Defense Ministry compound in Tel Aviv. A number of senior officials were present, including IDF chief of staff David Elazar. He reported on the situation in the Golan, where, as Azaryahu described it to Avner Cohen in 2008, it seemed that “the Syrians were advancing and we couldn’t stop them.”

Dayan himself had visited the front earlier that day, and it was there, that he was heard to utter his fear that the “Third Temple” – a reference to the State of Israel itself -- was in danger. It was a fear he was to repeat several times in the most difficult hours of the war.

Now, in Golda Meir's presence, he explained that even an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan might not improve the strategic situation: “The fight is over the entire Land of Israel,” he told the assembled officials, and the Arabs intended “to conquer Israel, to eliminate the Jews.”

Prime Minister Golda Meir with Ariel Sharon visiting the Southern Command in Sinai during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.Credit: Tzion Yehuda/GPO

Define 'demonstration'

It was only after the meeting adjourned, as Dayan stood grasping the door handle, that he turned to the prime minister and suggested, casually, that it might be wise to prepare a nuclear "demonstration" in advance of its being required, since such preparations might require “half a day,” in his estimation.

Dayan didn't say what he had in mind, but Cohen postulates that a demonstration realistically could have included “one or more high altitude bursts over unpopulated areas of Syria, Egypt or both,” in the evening, so that the display would have been “visible in the capital cities of Cairo and Damascus.”

The discussion never reached that level of detail, however: Golda Meir immediately cut Dayan off with the words, “Forget it.” Ministers Galili and Allon also expressed their objections to Dayan’s proposal. The defense minister quickly backed down, and left the room.

When Galili emerged from Meir's office, his shock was only heightened when he saw Shalheveth Freier seated in the hall. Freier, who had apparently been invited along by Dayan, was a physicist and the official in charge of Israel's nuclear program. Galili immediately returned to Meir’s office in order to ask her military secretary, Gen. Yisrael Lior, to make sure to tell the nuclear official directly to ignore any orders he may have been given by Moshe Dayan.

And that was the beginning and the end of Israel's deployment on that dark day of a doomsday weapon.

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