June '67: IDF Feared Egyptian Strike on Dimona

On the eve of the Six-Day War, the Israel Defense Forces warned the country's leaders that Egypt might destroy the Dimona nuclear reactor if Levi Eshkol's government continued to dither over whether to embark on war, according to the minutes of a June 1967 meeting of ministers and army generals.

The full document, which was classified as top secret and housed in the archives of the IDF and Defense Ministry, is being revealed today in response to a request by Haaretz. The publication of the minutes falls on the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was IDF chief of staff during the war.

Dimona nuclear power plant

The session convened at the IDF's headquarters in the Kirya defense compound in Tel Aviv on the morning of Friday, June 2, 1967. The meeting was held to allow IDF generals to give their assessments to the country's political leaders.

The discussions were attended by 12 ministers, including those appointed just a few days before, most prominently Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Minister without Portfolio Menachem Begin.

The 27-page document sheds light on the clash between Rabin and his generals, who were pushing for immediate war, and Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and his ministers, who were convinced that Israel needed to stall to obtain diplomatic understandings with the United States and other countries.

The meeting began with a briefing by the chief of Military Intelligence, Gen. Aharon Yariv, who warned the ministers that further delays would allow the Egyptians to mass greater forces in the Sinai Peninsula. "With each passing day, Israel's chances of achieving air superiority diminish greatly," he said. Yariv added that further indecisiveness would harm Israel's deterrent capability.

Yariv also discussed the diplomatic ramifications of an Israeli assault. He believed that while Washington would not intervene on Israel's behalf, it would ultimately agree to an IDF offensive.

The MI chief told the ministers that the diplomatic contacts "need not serve as an obstacle to a crushing and quick operation by the IDF." Failure by Israel to act might result in increased terrorist attacks under Egyptian and Syrian sponsorship and destabilize King Hussein's regime in Jordan. Worst of all, Egypt could decide "to deal a big blow and destroy Dimona, perhaps the airports also," Yariv warned.

After Yariv, it was Rabin's turn to brief the ministers. The chief of staff presented the army's position. "We are gradually entering a situation of comprehensive military concentration, one in which cooperation is steadily increasing in [the army]," Rabin said. "As time passes and Israel does not act, Arab confidence that Israel ... does not have the strength to deal with this problem grows."

According to Rabin, "We are liable to reach a point where - I don't want to express it in strong terms - but there will be a serious threat to Israel's existence and the war will be difficult, fierce and bloody." In response to what Rabin termed "the tightening military-diplomatic noose around our necks," he demanded "a crushing blow against Nasser," namely a surprise airstrike that would destroy the Egyptian air force "in one day."

The head of the Israel Air Force, Gen. Motti Hod, offered a detailed rundown of the aerial assault plan. Hod ensured the ministers that the IAF was "ready to take immediate action" and that each 24-hour delay would further complicate an air attack and increase the number of casualties.

The ministers quizzed Hod on military plans to protect Israeli cities from Arab air attacks, prompting Rabin to break in. "The best defense against an attack is to strike at the Egyptian air force," Rabin said.

The only sections of the minutes that the military censor has not released are Hod's statements on an Egyptian aerial reconnaissance mission over Israel two weeks before the war. According to foreign media reports, Egyptian planes sought to gather information about the nuclear reactor at Dimona.

Despite the military's dire warnings, many ministers stuck to their position. Minister of Religions Zerach Warhaftig maintained his opposition to any scenario in which Israel struck first.

The generals bitterly criticized the ministers' hesitation. GOC Southern Command Yeshayahu Gavish briefed the cabinet on Egypt's continued troop reinforcements in the Sinai. Gavish remarked that if the IDF had launched an attack 10 days earlier, "it would certainly be a walk in the park."

Gen. Avraham Yoffe said that the feeling among IDF soldiers in the south "is one of a lack of initiative on our part." The most caustic remarks were by Gen. Ariel Sharon, who said: "Our goal is no less than the complete destruction of the Egyptian forces."

"Due to hesitations and delays, we have lost the fundamental element of surprise," said Sharon, who added that a war with high casualties was justified since Israel found itself in its most dire straits since the War of Independence.