The 'Nuclear Narrative' of the Six-Day War

Only an understanding of the Egyptian viewpoint can reveal to what extent fear of Israel’s nuclear option triggered the 1967 conflict

Avner Cohen
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Dwight D. Eisenhower and Gamal Abdel Nasser.Credit: AP
Avner Cohen

After my essay “Fear of Dimona” was published (Haaretz in Hebrew, June 11), I received many responses and questions that made me realize I hadn’t made myself sufficiently clear. I thought that given the historical importance of the issue – Israel’s nuclear program and its role in the Six-Day War of 1967 – I ought to explain my remarks more clearly, and in particular to distinguish between what is known and what remains unknown.

I tried to create a conceptual distinction between the actual “nuclear dimension” of the events that occurred 50 years ago and the “nuclear narrative” of those events. By the term “nuclear dimension,” I meant that the waiting period before the war had a significant, perhaps even central, nuclear angle, which in the distant past was hidden and censored, and afterward downplayed, but about whose existence and importance there are no longer any doubts today.

Effectively, this nuclear dimension was twofold. One aspect of it was connected to the fear that had dogged Israel’s leadership from the mid-1960s onward, and which became central during the waiting period – the fear that the reactor in Dimona could constitute a motive for Egypt to launch what Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser termed a “preemptive war,” in order to prevent Israel from actualizing its nuclear capability. Just a week and a half ago, the Israel Defense Forces Archives and the defense establishment released an almost full transcript of a General Staff meeting on May 19, 1967, in which this fear took center stage.

The second aspect of the nuclear dimension relates to the fact that Israel actually did cross the nuclear threshold on the eve of the war. This was hinted at in Israeli publications from the 1980s (especially a book by Meir Mardor, founder of Rafael Advanced Defense Systems) and said explicitly in publications from the late 1990s, including an interview I conducted in 1999 with Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Yaakov, which was published in full by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington last month.

The question of how close Israel actually was to demonstrating its nuclear capabilities at that time remains shrouded in fog, and I believe it was quite far from doing so. But there’s no longer any disagreement about the fact that on the eve of the war, Israel became a nuclear state.

Israeli supplies are air dropped to troops in the Sinai, June 1967.
Israeli supplies are air dropped to troops in the Sinai, June 1967. Credit: A.P.

The Six-Day War’s “nuclear narrative” is a completely different issue. It relates to the cause of the war: Did the nuclear program play a hidden but central role in the chain of events that led to the war? On an empirical level, answering this question requires understanding the considerations of the Egyptian leadership, which created the crisis, and perhaps also of the Soviets, who sowed the seeds for it.

Or to put it another way, is the accepted narrative – which holds that the war broke out despite the fact that nobody wanted it, due to disinformation, mistakes, confusion and misunderstandings – the correct and full explanation for the war, or is there another, perhaps supplemental, answer which, from the Egyptian standpoint, links the crisis to Dimona?

Contrary to the claim made by Shmuel Meir in his blog (Haaretz in Hebrew, June 18) – that I depict nuclear weapons as “the decisive explanation for the outbreak of the Six-Day War” – I consider this an open research question, one which at this stage is far from being resolved. All I proposed in my essay was the possibility that there might be a different narrative, one that parallels or supplements the accepted narrative.

Any attempt by researchers to clarify the issue of the Six-Day War’s narrative depends above all on Egyptian rather than Israeli evidence. The accepted Egyptian narrative, like the Israeli narrative, is of a crisis over which Nasser lost control. The nuclear program had nothing to do with it. But it’s important to remember that the nuclear issue is sensitive, almost taboo, in Egypt, and there is almost no openly available historical research into it.

My Egyptian colleague, who wrote a fascinating doctoral thesis a few years ago on the issue of Egypt and nuclear weapons in the 1960s, is currently engaged in a comprehensive study of this very issue. Since his study hasn’t yet been published, I’ll say only that what remains unknown exceeds what is known about this issue.

Two secondary issues also relate to Egypt. One is the complex personal relationship between Nasser and his deputy, Abdel Hakim Amer and especially Amer’s role in creating the crisis, including whether he deceived Nasser by exacerbating it. From what little is known, it seems that Amer was more bothered by the Dimona reactor than Nasser was.

The second issue relates to Egypt’s plan of attack, Operation Dawn. Contrary to what Meir said, the important empirical questions aren’t what Israeli Military Intelligence did or didn’t know about the plan, but whether, and to what degree, Egypt was close to launching a surprise attack on Israel. And if so, what were its goals?

Contrary to Meir, who treats the plan as “a made-up story,” my Egyptian colleague found a great deal of evidence for the operation’s existence from a long list of senior Egyptian officials of the time, especially military officials (Fawzi, Badran, Murtagi, Shazly and Gamasy, and even Amer, in his resignation letter). All confirmed, each based on his own memory, that Operation Dawn, an aerial and ground assault on Israel, was in fact planned for dawn on May 27 and came very close to being carried out.

But my colleague also stressed that Nasser never gave his consent to the operation. Nor is it clear from the testimony how central a role Dimona played in this operation.

Perhaps Meir and I can agree on one thing. Even 50 years later, we’re still far from understanding all the facets of the Six-Day War.

Avner Cohen is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey.