Jeffrey LewisIsrael, Nuclear Weapons and the 1973 Yom Kippur War

One of the nicest things about relocating to Monterey is that Avner Cohen, a colleague from my days at the University of Maryland, has relocated too. Avner, like me, is a lapsed philosopher with a deep interest in nuclear weapons — there is probably no one who knows more about the Israeli nuclear weapons program.  Well, no one who can talk, anyway.

Avner’s knowledge is based on decades of research.  Now, that material is available to other scholars.  Avner donated to the Woodrow Wilson Center his research materials — tens of thousands of pages of copies of archival documents, countless press clippings, and hundreds of hours of oral history interviews — that form the basis for his books, Israel and the Bomb and The Worst Kept Secret. Some of these materials are now online.

As part of the announcement process, Avner wrote an op-ed for the New York Times.

I am pleased to note that Avner also accepted my suggestion to collect all the wonky bits that might not interest a general reader in a long-form piece for the blog.  You are in for a real treat.

How Nuclear Was It? New Testimony on the 1973 Yom Kippur War

Avner Cohen[1]

Two weeks ago the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP), which is housed at the History and Public Policy Program of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., released the first installment from my personal archival collection, known now as the “Avner Cohen Collection,” on its digital nuclear archive web site.

The key item in this release is a video interview (as well as a written transcript) which I made in 2008 with the late Azarayahu ‘Sini’ Arnan, a former senior advisor in the Israeli government, who provides a dramatic eyewitness description of a closed-door ministerial consultation in which Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir overruled Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, halting preparations to ready the country’s nuclear weapons for a possible demonstration during the 1973 War.[2] This interview upends conventional assumptions that Israel was very close to using nuclear weapons in this conflict (or even threatened to use nuclear weapons) and provides unique insight into how the Israeli government came to this decision.

On the day of the release, which coincided with the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, the New York Times published an op-ed piece I authored about the Sini interview.[3] It was in this context that my colleague Jeffrey Lewis suggested that I should write something for this blog that will go beyond what I already said in the New York Times and elsewhere. Almost with no hesitation I told Jeffrey, sure, I’ll do something. That something will try to discuss the nuclear dimension of the 1973 War beyond what was discussed before, and it will also be homage to this great blog that for some time I have had the desire to be a contributor.

So here it is and I hope it will stir some further discussion.


Ever since the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for some four-odd decades, there have been outstanding and lingering questions on the war’s nuclear dimension. What exactly happened in Israel on that front during the war? How close really was Israel to the nuclear brink? If indeed Israel conducted nuclear-related activities on the ground, as is commonly believed, what was the purpose and the target of those activities?

Then there is a higher layer of questions, more historiographical in nature: What is the place of the 1973 Yom Kippur War in the context of the nuclear age? Can we plausibly compare the nuclear situation in 1973 with the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962? Which was more dangerous?

Over the last four decades a certain “mythology” has been built over the issue. Soon after the war, rumors started to spread that Israel had indeed come close to the nuclear abyss. There were anonymous tales about bomb or bomb components being rushed to Israeli air bases as well about missile alerts.

Time magazine was the first to elevate those rumors to the level of published claims. According to an unsigned story on April 12, 1976, in the early phases of the war Prime Minister Golda Meir ordered the assembly and arming of 13 nuclear bombs. The story suggested that it was that specter of nuclear escalation that led U.S Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to act firm and fast to provide Israel with the most massive weapons airlift in history. A few years later American playwright William Gibson used this alleged episode in developing his 1988 one-actress Broadway play Golda’s Balcony. [The play was turned into a film in 2007, with Valerie Harper—who in the 1970s played Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show—portraying Golda Meir. Here’s the trailer:

[Avner, this movie looks terrible — Ed.]

Subsequently, others have followed and elaborated further on that nuclear lore.  Seymour Hersh is probably the author who provided this mythology its loudest voice.  In his 1991 book The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy, in a chapter entitled “Nuclear Blackmail,” Hersh added further details and extra drama to this mythology. He made a reference to an unnamed “Israeli official,” someone who served in the prime minister’s office, who confided to him that the decision “to arm the weapons…was reached easily.” That someone also told him that the nuclear issue dominated Golda Meir’s war cabinet meeting on the late morning of October 8.[4]

According to Hersh, following a briefing by the nation’s nuclear chief, Shalheveth Freier, the ministerial forum decided to “arm and target the nuclear arsenal in the event of total collapse” and also to “inform Washington of its unprecedented action,” demanding that Washington initiate an “emergency airlift” to supply Israel with the arms and ammunition required to continue waging an “all-out war effort.” According to Hersh, Israel used the nuclear alert approved on October 8th as “nuclear blackmail.” [5]

Since the publication of Hersh’s book, other [non-Israeli] authors have followed that general narrative, academics and journalists alike, such as Martin van Creveld, Walter Boyne, Walter Isaacson, Richard Sale, and others.  Like Hersh, these authors rely either on unnamed sources or appeal to rumors. One exception was William Quandt, the NSC point man for Middle East issues during the 1973 War, who confirmed openly in 1991 that the United States government did pick up “something” during the war that indicated that Israel had placed its Jericho missiles on some sort of alert.

Over the four decades since the war, the nuclear lore about 1973 has turned into an urban legend: nobody knows how exactly it originated and who the real sources were, but it is commonly believed as true or near-true. I call this lore (rumors/claims/conjectures) a “mythology” because they could not be traced to any identifiable source, Israeli or otherwise, who could directly and openly confirm any of those reports. Mind you, Quandt’s testimony, vague as it was, was not about nukes but rather about missiles.[6]


Not only are there no positive identifiable confirmations to any of those allegations, but at least two prominent Israelis, figures who were in a position to know, took the effort to openly and firmly deny Hersh or other Hersh-like claims. The first was the late Shalheveth Freier (1920-1994), Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission head during the 1973 War, and the official who was mentioned by name in Hersh’s account.  After the publication of The Samson Option, Freier sought vigorously and publicly to discredit Hersh’s narrative in any possible platform, especially those factual claims that were about him. While Freier refused to provide a positive account of his own, and was even unwilling to detail his specific reservations, he was adamant that Hersh’s account was false. I saw Freier in action on this crusade at least twice.

The second Israeli to deny openly Hersh’s account was the late Professor Yuval Ne’eman.  Ne’eman was a former Israeli Minister of Science and Acting Chair of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (both positions were held under Prime Minister Menachem Begin in the early 80s), who served during the war as Moshe Dayan’s personal liaison in strategic communications with the United States. In an article titled “The USA-Israel Connection in the Yom Kippur War” that was published in a Center for National Security Negotiations (CNSN) Occasional Paper (based on a lecture that Ne’eman gave in a small CNSM meeting which I helped to arrange in Washington D.C. in February 1996), Ne’eman made a point to totally discredit Hersh’s “nuclear blackmail” narrative and provided a very vague and partial account of his own on the Israeli nuclear dimension of the 1973 War.

Against this background of absence and denial the interview which I conducted in 2008 with my friend, the late Arnan “Sini” Azaryahu, just ten months prior to his passing, stands up as distinct, revealing, and intriguing. None of what Sini told me during that interview was new to me. In fact, I had heard it all from him before and sometimes more than once, including his testimony on Dayan’s nuclear proposal in the 1973 War. When I arrived in Israel in January 2008 and learned that Sini’s physical health had deteriorated, I hired a videographer and rushed to his home in order to preserve those precious memoirs. Sini understood my interest and cooperated.  My purpose on that day was simple: to record those extraordinary testimonies that I otherwise feared would be lost forever. I knew that on those nuclear-related incidents Sini might have been the last surviving individual who had witnessed that history in its making.[7]

In particular, I was interested in saving Sini’s testimony on two key historical events, this 1973 war nuclear encounter and a key nuclear decision by Ben Gurion in 1962. Both episodes involve fateful moments in Israel’s nuclear history that have otherwise left almost no trace in the public record, either in documents or in other oral testimonies. This particular 12-minute interview segment concerns one such episode: the story of the small ministerial consultation that took place in Prime Minister Golda Meir’s office on the early afternoon of the second day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The content of the interview is now in the public domain, so I will not repeat it here one more time.  Instead, in line with Jeffrey’s invitation, I use this space to address some of the open and intriguing issues involving this testimony.  I start with the two broad issues—overall significance and the fundamental limitations of oral history—and then I move to some particular issues:

The Overall Significance 

Minister Yisrael Galili’s first words to Sini as he sees him when the ministerial meeting adjourned, “something like that never happened to me before,” reveal how unprecedented and extraordinary that encounter was. Never before were Israeli leaders asked to activate the nation’s nuclear weapons for a possible demonstration. Never before had the minister of defense believed that Israel was fighting for its life as a nation and fast approaching an apocalyptic moment. This is a testimony about that kind of extraordinary moment.

Its significance ties in with the issue of credibility. It is the first and only testimony made by a credible, identifiable source regarding a discussion of the nuclear issue at the level of the Israeli war cabinet. As such the testimony challenges the nearly four-decade old “mythology” cited earlier alleging that Israel “almost” reached the nuclear brink during the 1973 War. At the very least it questions the Hersh-inspired narrative by which Israel was very close to actually using nuclear weapons, or that Israel used its nuclear assets as a strategic tool to pressure or even “blackmail” the United States to begin an airlift to Israel with a massive amount of military supplies. This mythology, which was never backed up by direct evidence and is considered by many as true, is now seriously questioned.

Not only does Sini’s testimony question the old narrative, but it suggests a new narrative, a narrative that acknowledges the nuclear dimension but colors it with the hue of nuclear restraint. In essence, even during the darkest hours of the 1973 War, when Israel’s hold on the Golan Heights appeared to be slipping away, the Israeli national leadership, and most significantly Prime Minister Golda Meir, were not willing to consider even a modest proposal to take action and prepare the nation’s doomsday weapons for a possible demonstration.

Oral History and the Fragility of Human Memory

As dramatic and powerful as it is, this is one oral testimony from one human source. Even if the core of the testimony is historically accurate and sound—and I believe it is—it is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. At best, it is a snapshot of one particular historical encounter. We do not know really what preceded it or what followed, nor do we know about relevant decisions and activities that took place at other, lower-level but nuclear-relevant junctions.

I interviewed Sini in 2008, when he was 91 years of age and thirty-five years after the events in question. I was aware of that. As is common in oral history, there is an epistemic gap between the testimony’s core and periphery: while the core—e.g., an encounter, an event, etc.,—tends to remain vivid and sharp years later, the periphery—context, background, etc.—tends to be foggy, often reincorporated with and embedded into other personal recollections and/or pieces of public knowledge. These are standard features of human memory. Oral testimony, at its best, is a snapshot of one dramatic moment, not more.

This is so true about Sini’s testimony. While the core is in focus—Dayan’s nuclear proposal, substance and style—the periphery is blurry and personal. Sini could not nail down the exact day and the time that the event took place. It was I, not Sini, who concluded that the encounter must have taken place on the second day of the war, Sunday, October 7, in the afternoon. He wasn’t specific about the content of the meeting as a whole, and some of what he said was untrue.

Indeed, since the interview I’ve gained access to the original minutes of the ministerial meeting that preceded his testimony (those minutes were formally declassified and released in 2010 by the Israel State Archive), and they show that in the meeting, contrary to Sini’s recollection, there was no discussion about sending Minister Chaim Barlev to the Northern command; that discussion took place in another meeting.

The General Context 

Though Sini’s knowledge (and/or memory) of the preceding memory is fragmentary and even inaccurate on some peripheral aspects of the situation, ultimately those minutes provide fantastic background which help us understand Dayan’s proposal.  As expected, the encounter that Sini describes is not included. One can safely surmise that neither Dayan nor the other ministers would have dared to discuss the nuclear issue while the minutes were being recorded.

The background of the meeting, particularly Dayan’s state of mind, is the key to understanding his nuclear proposal.[8] On the previous morning, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s “Mr. Security” and hero of the 1967 Six-Day War had been so confident of Israel’s military ability to defend itself that he opposed mobilizing the entirety of the nation’s reserve force, despite intelligence reports indicating an imminent Arab military assault. Less than a day later, after visiting both front-lines, Dayan had been transformed into a prophet of doom. In a number of well-documented episodes earlier that day, Dayan murmured about the demise of the “Third Temple,” a reference to the modern state of Israel.

With this state of mind, Dayan entered the conference room at the prime minister’s office, where Meir was anxiously waiting his arrival from Sinai to hear his assessment of the military situation. According to the official minutes, ten people attended the meeting: Golda Meir, the three senior ministers constituting Meir’s war cabinet (Dayan, Allon, and Galili), and six other senior staff and personal aides. Contrary to Sini’s testimony, Chief of Staff General David Elazar was not present when the meeting started; he joined towards the very end.

The meeting began at 2:50 PM as Dayan started with his assessment of the military situation. He began by noting that overnight Israel had lost its lines on both frontiers. Israel could not hold its few isolated posts along the canal and it must cut its losses by retreating to new defensive lines on both the Golan and in the Sinai. “Those posts that we can evacuate, we should evacuate; those who we cannot evacuate, they will stay, even surrender. We should tell them: we cannot reach you out; try to break out [to us] or surrender.”

Dayan also predicted that Jordan would soon join the battle against Israel. He read the situation as an all-out war in which the invading Arabs forces would not stop. “The fight is over the entire land of Israel. Even if we withdraw from the Golan Heights, this would not solve anything.”  There were already hundreds of casualties and he expected many more.

Neither Dayan, nor anyone else in the room understood the situation beyond knowing that it was national nightmare. Prime Minister Meir said at one point, “there is no reason why they [the Arabs] would stop . . . they already tasted blood,” and Dayan continued her thought, stating that the Arab forces intended “to conquer Israel, to eliminate the Jews.” Minister Allon continued, “Moshe is right. In this situation there is no other way.” This exchange highlights that Dayan was not the only one who believed at that point that this was a war of survival; they all fell into that kind of outlook.

When Prime Minister Meir reminded the forum that the full government was about to convene for a formal session in less than in an hour, Ministers Galili and Dayan proposed to postpone that meeting to 9 PM. Prime Minister Meir adopted the suggestion and announced that until then they would continue with informal consultation. At that point (4:20 PM) the formal meeting ends, the forum was adjourned, and the minutes stop. Chief of Staff Elazar and non-essential staff left the room, leaving the prime minister with her three senior ministers. There is no one to take the minutes of the rest of the conversation. It is now that Sini’s encounter takes place, an encounter that probably was deliberately designed not to be included in the regular minutes of the meeting.

The Nuclear Context

Probably the major difficulty in interpreting Sini’s testimony is the lack of knowledge and clarity on the Israeli nuclear situation at the time. This applies to both the size and status of the nuclear inventory, as well as on the organizational structure and the command and control procedures that governed the system.

On the former issue, the size and the status of the arsenal, it is plausible that on the eve of the 1973 War Israel had a small nuclear inventory of weapons, say, between ten to twenty first-generation fission (PU) weapons (roughly, Nagasaki-type). One could speculate further that most of the inventory was in the form of aerial bombs (probably configured for the Mirage) and some were early prototypes of missile warheads for the Jericho I (which in October 1973 was apparently not yet operational). One could also assume that Israel probably kept its atomic stockpiles unassembled, where the nuclear cores were probably kept separated in a special facility run by the civilian nuclear agency (IAEC and not by the IDF). Hence, to assemble and arm the aerial bomb safely would be probably a lengthy, complex operation that required a small group of dedicated and trained personnel. To get the personnel and to conduct the operation is something that could easily have taken over half a day, possibly longer.

On the latter issue, while it is commonly known that the nuclear agency is under the command of the prime minister, it is less known what the exact role of the Minister of Defense is in running and overseeing the nuclear system, either at times of peace or war. Presumably Israel developed a version of its own of the “dual key” command and control system (which apparently was in rudimentary form prior to 1973) that requires the active participation of both functionaries in mobilizing and activating nuclear weapons. The fact that nuclear weapons infrastructure must include non-nuclear organizational entities under the control of the Ministry of Defense makes the situation even more complex. While some fundamental documents and procedures relating to the principles of command and control must have been in existence in 1973, it is unclear how detailed or vague they might have been. In any case, we do not know what kind of authorities the prime minister and the minister of defense need to have in order to activate the system on their own, individually or jointly, and to what extent they were required to bring such requests to the higher ministerial forum.

The result is that a great deal of the governance context to understand Dayan’s proposal is unclear. Can the prime minister instruct her nuclear chief to take steps to prepare for a nuclear demonstration? It is very probable. Indeed, one can assume that Prime Minister Golda Meir, being ex-officio in charge of the nuclear agency, had already been in touch with Shalheveth Freier, her nuclear chief, on key issues requiring her approval or knowledge after the war had broken out, the day before. For example, as Ne’eeman noted, the prime minister must have approved earlier a decision to shut down the country’s nuclear reactors. Additionally, the prime minister had likely received some kind of a status report in written or oral form on the readiness of the nation’s nuclear inventory. But the early afternoon of the 7th was probably the first time that Freier was summoned to the war ministerial forum with the expectation that he would or could receive Meir’s approval to Dayan’s request, and would possibly brief the prime minister and her senior ministers on the operational aspects of the proposal.

It is clear from the testimony that the proposal was Dayan’s idea, and that he arranged for Freier’s attendance, but many other procedural issues about Freier’s attendance remain unclear. What was the exact purpose of Freier’s summoning? Who formally summoned Freier to attend the meeting, given the fact that Dayan had returned from the Sinai just minutes earlier? In any case, it is implausible that Dayan could or would have summoned Freier on his own without approval or consultation with Meir.

Furthermore, it remains unclear when and how Prime Minister Meir first learned about Dayan’s nuclear ideas, what her initial reaction to his proposal was, and whether Meir personally asked Freier to attend the meeting. It is also unknown what kind of communication, if any, took place between Freier and Dayan (and/or their respective offices) prior to the meeting.

As Sini suggests, Meir had probably been aware of Dayan’s thinking, perhaps from meeting face to face just prior to the formal meeting. Yet her original reaction to his nuclear proposal is unclear. It seems that she could have approved the proposal on her own authority—it appears as though she had the authority to do so—but she did not want to, and instead left Dayan’s request to the ministerial forum. Was the role of the forum merely consultative, with the ultimate decision lying with the prime minister? Alternatively, one would think that Meir could have endorsed Minister of Defense Dayan’s proposal and presented it as her own request—this would have made a huge difference to the members of the war cabinet—but apparently Meir did not endorse Dayan’s proposal, and left it to him to present it as his own idea. Indeed, it is not clear from the testimony whether Dayan asked only for the prime minister’s approval or whether he actually asked for the forum’s approval.

Furthermore, we know almost nothing about how the Israeli nuclear command and control system worked in 1973, if indeed Israel had any rigid formal procedures. It is unclear to what extent decision-making on the nuclear question was covered by well-defined procedures that articulated the division of labor and authority among the prime minister, the minister of defense and the cabinet. Sini does make a brief reference in his testimony to a “double key system,” a command and control system requiring approval from both the minister of defense and the prime minister in order to activate nuclear weapons. In any case, we have neither factual nor procedural clarity on any of these issues.

Dayan’s Nuclear Proposal 

So what did Dayan actually have in mind when he proposed to the prime minister that Israel should prepare for a “nuclear demonstration”? There are many outstanding questions involving the specifics of Dayan’s proposal and its underlying technical and strategic context. Analytically, one could divide those questions into two groups: first, the specifics of Dayan’s proposal (what exactly he proposed to do); and second, the state of Israel’s actual nuclear capabilities, that is, the capabilities required making Dayan’s proposal feasible.

On the former subject, all that we know from Sini’s testimony is that Dayan proposed that Meir would order Shalheveth Freier, the nation’s nuclear chief, to initiate “preparations” towards a “nuclear demonstration”—explicitly a demonstration, not to use against any targets—to save precious time (“half a day”) should the need become imminent and necessary. Beyond this, we know nothing; all else is mere speculation. Still, it is interesting to consider what a “nuclear demonstration” might have involved and whether the suggested timeframe of 6–12 hours was realistic. Israel was presumably capable of conducting an underground detonation of a weapon with a yield on the order of Hiroshima or Nagasaki (~20kt). However, even with a pre-drilled testing facility, the setup time required would have probably exceeded the half-day timeframe, without even considering the political uncertainties involved in conducting an underground test in time of war. Moreover, even if an underground demonstration could have been carried out, there would be serious doubts about its effectiveness on the Egyptian and Syrian governments and little to no indication that it would have applied sufficient pressure to cause a cessation of hostilities. Such a demonstration makes very little strategic, logistic or political sense.

A far more effective demonstration within Israel’s technical capabilities and the suggested timeframe would have been one or more high altitude bursts over unpopulated areas of Syria, Egypt or both. Such blasts would be conducted at a time (probably shortly after dark) to make the demonstration visible in the capital cities of Cairo and Damascus, thereby avoiding any debates that might have been associated with an underground demonstration and ensuring extreme public pressure on the Syrian and Egyptian governments.

Furthermore, it is highly likely that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) had a small group of pilots pre-trained on nuclear missions in French Mirage aircraft (used to avoid conflict with the commitment Israel had given that its US-supplied aircraft were not to be used for nuclear weapons missions) and the necessary adaption kits for nuclear payloads ready to install very quickly. The IAF presumably would have been able to rapidly move weapons, configure the Mirage aircraft for nuclear strike missions, assemble pilots pre-qualified for nuclear missions, organize escorts, and brief and launch such demonstration missions within 6 to 12 hours.

Given the situation, one can safely suggest that Dayan’s idea was probably to prepare logistically and organizationally for a high altitude aerial burst over a desolate area. It would require the IAF and the Israel Atomic Energy Commission working closely with one another to assemble a handful of weapons for the demonstration. Presumably, all those issues should have been explained to the forum in Freier’s briefing, but that presentation was never authorized, and was consequently never delivered. Dayan’s proposal was killed before it even had a chance to be discussed.

In the final analysis, Dayan’s nuclear idea was a declaration of despair. Had Israel conducted a nuclear demonstration in the middle of the war, would it have been understood by all as an anguished decision of last resort? Although it could be argued that such a demonstration strategy might have forced Egypt and Syria to pause hostilities, Israel would have been seen as weak and effectively defeated by resorting to the use of nuclear weapons. Would it have been in the Israeli interest to convey such a message? Could a military situation be envisioned where such a move would make sense? Furthermore, such a demonstration would have unleashed an immediate nuclear arms race in the region, in addition to the inevitable near-term international condemnation and demands for Israeli disarmament.

While we do not know what exactly triggered Dayan’s nuclear proposal or how much time and thought he put into it, we do know that Dayan was in a state of acute shock by the afternoon of the second day of the war; some even describe it as near breakdown. It is evident that his nuclear proposal reflects a gloom and doom state of mind.

Final Thoughts

It is important to recognize that Sini’s testimony is so far the only direct and credible Israeli eyewitness testimony on the nuclear dimension of that war. There is still a great deal unknown.

One primary reason for the general obscurity of the subject is Israel’s code of silence on all nuclear matters. Given the culture of secrecy and the institutional censorship in Israel on all nuclear issues, it is not surprising that the nuclear dimension of the war has remained undocumented.

Sini’s testimony is novel. It contradicts, if not flatly refutes, the Hersh narrative and instead offers a much more nuanced and restrained story. It acknowledges that the 1973 war had a nuclear dimension, but that dimension was much more minor and contained than previously believed. Even a “just in case” preparatory proposal was ultimately ruled out by Prime Minister Meir and her trusted political advisors. Dayan’s nuclear proposal went nowhere.

Sini’s testimony reveals that the Israeli leadership, with the notable exception of Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan, recognized the danger of the nuclear brink during the1973 war and refused to approach it. In that meeting, Israel discovered its own commitment to the nuclear taboo.

[1] Special gratitude to my graduate research assistant, Shane Mason, who provided assistance for this post, including helpful editing and proofreading.

[4] I always suspected that Hersh’s source was the Eli Mizrachi, one of Golda Meir’s office aides, a man that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin did not trust and soon after he took office he fired him from the prime minister’s office. Shortly after, sometime in the late 1970s Mizrachi left Israel and immigrated to the United States.  Rumors spread for years that Mizrachi left Israel under the cloud of a security investigation, and he was suspected of leaking information to the United States.

[5] On pp. 225-226 of The Samson Option, Hersh repeatedly claims that the infamous cabinet meeting took place on October 8th. As you will see here in the official minutes of that exact meeting ( the nuclear issue is not mentioned. Likewise, it would have been unlikely for the nuclear option to emerge on the 8th, as the leadership started the day optimistic about the success of Israel’s pending counteroffensive. Here also are minutes from a cabinet meeting the following day, October 9th (

[6] Quandt was unaware that, in 1973, the Jericho missiles were not fully operational for a nuclear role. This is a telling oversight by Quandt and, presumably, the rest of the U.S. intelligence community responsible for the Middle East.

[7] Many people who knew Sini well realized that he held a treasure trove of historical tales in his mind and that they must be somehow preserved. Ultimately, Ora Armoni interviewed Sini about his life and based on those conversations she wrote Sini’s biography. The book was published in 2008 shortly before he died. [See, Ora Armony, “Haver v’ish sod: Sichot im Sini” (“Friend and Confidant: Conversations with Sini”), Hakibbutz Hameuchad and Yad Tabenkin, 254 pp, 2008] However, in those interviews Sini did not feel comfortable elaborating on those sensitive episodes in Israel’s nuclear history. Those issues remain unexplored.

[8] Here are the minutes of the meeting on October 7th (Hebrew-only)


  1. Cthippo (History)

    Couple thoughts here (which may not make sense as I just woke up)…

    It seems like the Israelis would have had to be past the point of Mark 4 / Nagasaki type weapons at this point for the simple reason that I don’t think a Mirage could deliver such a weapon. A US Mark 4 had an external diameter of 5 feet and weighed in the neighborhood of 11,000 pounds. A Mirage IIICJ, the type in use by the IAF at the time, has a maximum payload of only 8800 lbs.

    here’s a link to a picture of a mirage in an Israeli museum:

    As you can see there is only about three feet of clearance between the ground and the bottom of the aircraft, and there has to be room for a mounting pylon in there as well.

    By looking at the physical characteristics of the delivery vehicle we can put an upper bound on the dimensions of the weapon. If it’s going to be carried by a Mirage the deliverable device has to be not much larger than the drop tank in the photo (15-18 inches diameter at most) and weigh not more than about 9000 lbs.

    Perhaps there was another aircraft in service with the IAF that could carry a larger weapon, but nothing Mk 4 sized.

    The second issue has to do with the fuzing of the “demonstration” weapon. Assuming you are correct and the demonstration was intended to be a high altitude detonation, something has to tell the bomb when to go off. Most nuclear weapons are set to detonate at a low altitude and have sensors to determine if they have been dropped correctly, if they have fallen an adequate amount of time, and when they are at the correct altitude to detonate. In order for the demonstration to take place at high altitude someone would have to come up with a new, or at least modified, fuzing system. Since it is a demonstration, and one meant to help insure the national survival, it would have to be super reliable. Would you trust the fate of your country to something you knocked together in an afternoon to meet a need that had never existed before?

    On the other hand, there is lots of empty desert in that part of the world and a small airburst at the upper end of the tactical range for which the weapons were designed, while not visible in Cairo and Damascus, should get the point across.

    • John Schilling (History)

      “Israelis would have had to be past the point of Mark 4 / Nagasaki type weapons at this point”

      I question the implied assumption that the Israelis, or really any other post-1960 nuclear weapons state, ever would have been at that state to begin with. The Trinity gadget and its descendents, all the way down through the Mark 4, were artifacts of a unique set of circumstances. The United States built such devices because we didn’t really know that atomic bombs would work at all, we faced enormous time pressure to get something that simply worked, and we had B-29s to carry whatever we came up with. The Russians and Brits built such devices because they were starting with Gadget blueprints and couldn’t be sure there was some clever trick they might miss if they changed anyting. Plus, they had B-29 equivalents.

      But even in 1945, US weaponeers knew essentially everything that would eventually go into the first generation of lightweight “tactical” weapons; they just didn’t have the time. By about 1960, everyone knew those techniques, and more importantly knew that those techniques worked. They produce weapons that are in every way superior to the Nagasaki device; lighter bombs using less fissile material to produce higher yields. And they do not in any way depend on lessons that can only, or even best, be learned by way of a Trinity gadget.

      The American Mark 5, Mark 7, and Mark 12 nuclear bombs represent the type of weapons which could probably be built and deployed right out of the gate by an emerging nuclear power, any time from 1960 to the present. Note that France’s first nuclear test was of a Mark 5 equivalent device, rapidly improved to a Mark 7 equivalent.

      The Mark 12 would easily have fit under a Mirage III, and Israel could easily have built a Mark 12 equivalent as its first device. Though I am inclined to agree with your later suggestion that a Mark 7 under a Skyhawk would be somewhat more likely. And I note in passing and with admiration that the same combination kicked off the plot of Tom Clancy’s “The Sum of All Fears”; the man did his homework.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Given that Israel had nuclear weapons by 1973, if Israel faced military defeat and possibly being overrun by Arab armies in 1973, there was a high likelihood of Israel using its nuclear weapons.

    Maybe it was just Dayan who felt, in the first day, that Israel’s situation was desperate enough to begin wheeling out the nukes. But others would have come to the same conclusion if things had continued to go the same way.

    How much prompting would Henry Kissinger have needed in order to carry this computation through to its conclusion?

    Meir would not have had to pick up the phone and tell him they were ready to strike. Yeah, that’s Hollywood. In reality, the subtlest signal would have been understood. No signal would really have been needed, assuming the US understood the military situation.

    I find this account (Cohen’s) to be highly credible. But I don’t think it subtracts much from our understanding of the “nuclear blackmail” inherent in Israel’s securing emergency materiel (and personnel) aid from the US, which was critical to turning the tide, nor does it subtract from the nuclear dimension of the war’s denouement.

    I think it shows that top national leaders are not usually stupid people, but that does not mean that the games they play are not deadly serious. 1973 was still a very dangerous year.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I find myself in agreement with much of what Mark says here.

      One quibble is the vocabulary. The term “blackmail” does not seem to fit here. If Israel were to use nuclear weapons as a last resort in a desperate situation, presumably this would be done in self-defense, not because Israel was trying to “blackmail” the U.S. into providing aid. Even if Israel had told the U.S. of plans for a nuclear demonstration (assuming Israel were being honest, not bluffing) that still would not be blackmail.

      Also it would have been unnecessary to “blackmail” the U.S. to provide aid to Israel, since Israel was fast becoming an ally of the U.S. A mere demonstration of urgent need for military aid to defend against aggression would have been sufficient. Blackmail also would have been counterproductive, as in friends don’t blackmail friends, potentially harming Israel’s long-term interests.

      The term “blackmail” might describe North Korea, perhaps, depending on how one interprets North Korea’s behavior and goals, not Israel in 1973.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      I agree that the term “blackmail” is a bit loaded and perhaps inappropriate unless there is some reason to think that Meir did directly communicate some kind of threat or warning or call it what you will to Nixon and Kissinger — one reason to think that she probably did not do so.

      However, the situation in effect compelled the US to intervene as it did, massively and decisively. You could argue this is blackmail, but you could probably extend the same argument to every policy based on anyone’s possession of nuclear weapons.

  3. Cthippo (History)

    Continuing to think about this…

    It’s always been assumed that the Mirage was intended to be the primary delivery vehicle for the Israeli deterrent in the early days, but I think this assumption is faulty. The Mirage III is first and foremost a fighter, designed to intercept and destroy other aircraft with cannon and missiles. To fulfill this role it’s fast and maneuverable, but also fairly small and lightweight with a limited payload. As we’ve also seen in my above post, it sits fairly low to the ground, placing physical limitations on the size and types of payloads that can be carried.

    So what else was in the inventory at the time? The US sold Israel F-4 Phantoms and A-4 Skyhawks after the 1967 war and while the Phantom was used as a bomb cart, the Skyhawk excelled in this role. In fact, the Skyhawk was designed from the ground up in the 1950s as the US Navy’s first tactical nuclear bomber. it could carry 9.900 lbs of ordinance and, due it it’s carrier based pedigree as well as the size of the US nuclear weapons when it was designed, sat very high on long travel landing gear. In short, there was probably no aircraft in the world better suited to the tactical nuclear gravity bomber role than the A-4.

    So what of the promise that Israel would not use US made aircraft on nuclear missions? First off, since they didn’t officially posses any nukes, how could they use them (nudge nudge, wink wink, know what I mean) and secondly, if they day came when they actually had to use one, does it matter who’s airframe they fall off of?

    Coming back to the Mirage III, the French did actually develop a nuclear weapon for it, the AN-52. The prior French nuclear gravity bombs, the AN-11 and AN-22 were both larger and designed to be dropped from the Mirage IV strategic bomber. The process of shrinking the bombs to a size that could fit under a fighter took a while and the AN-52 wasn’t tested until August 28, 1972. That’s barely a year before the Yom Kippur war. In order for Israel to have had a nuclear weapons capable of being carried by their Mirage fighters they would have either had to have been given the completed device by the French, or would have had to design and build a bomb for the Mirage before the French did without testing it. I don’t find either of those scenarios credible.

    • Carl DeHaven (History)

      Thought the Mirage III was developed and optimized as an interceptor, Dassault pretty quickly evolved the design into a multi-role aircraft.

      Part of the Swiss rational for buying the production license for the Mirage III was that they were looking at it as a delivery system for their proposed nuclear deterrent, which they ended up abandoning, along with their need for a modern interceptor.

  4. Carl De Haven (History)

    What is being forgotten here are the number of weapons designs that were fielded in the early and late 1950s by the US that were HEU gun assembly weapons that not only were sized for the tactical aircraft of the era, but also the nuclear artillery projectiles as well, to use for comparison as to what Israel could have had fielded by 1973.

    The 11 inch W9 (850 lbs) of 1952 and follow on W19 (600 lbs) and W-23 (adapted W9 to a 16 inch projectile, 1500 lbs. All had between 15 and 20 Kt yields .

    And then there’s the W33 8 inch, 250 lbs nuclear round from 1957.

    All were mechanically time delayed airburst weapons.

    The Mark 8 and 11 free fall bombs being specifically intended as “bunker busting” ground penetrating weapons in US service, weighing in at 3200 to 3500 lbs and being 14 inches in diameter and 147 inches long. Yields on these weapons were between 25 and 30 Kt.

    On the implosion side overlooked is the Mark 7 implosion family of weapons (free fall, missile warhead and depth charge) of 1952, which was 1680 lbs, 30 inches in diameter and a bit over 15 feet in length. Yields on this family of weapons were variable between 8 and 60 Kt.
    The Mark 7, 8 and 11 were all carried by the F-4 and A-4 (for that matter the A-1 Skyraider, which would have been the one of the possible delivery vehicles for one if Eisenhower had agreed to France’s requested nuclear airstrike on Dien Bien Phu) and could have been carried by the Mirage III in terms of ground clearance and weight.

    As for fusing for a demonstration airburst, using a time delay fuse in a loft toss by the delivering aircraft would probably be the simplest manner of getting the desired detonation height.

  5. krepon (History)

    Thanks, Avner.
    Sy Hersh has also greatly exaggerated the threat of nuclear use by Pakistan. See “Sy Hersh and Pakistan’s Nukes” (11/19/09)in ACW or in volume one of my e-book compilation of ACW posts, Rummaging in Shoeboxes (2011).

  6. Allen Thomson (History)

    Somewhat following the upstream comments, particularly those of John Schilling, can we place any reasonable upper technical limits on what Israel might have had available in 1973?

    What, for a perhaps extreme example, would have constrained them from having something like the B43, if only in a simplified form? I’m guessing that they didn’t, but can’t quite pin down an argument against it. True, it was a two-stage weapon, but why not?

    • Cthippo (History)

      John probably has far better insights into this than I do, but off hand I would guess tritium. As I understand it, the variable yield feature (officially FUll Fusing Option or FUFO, colloquially Dial-a-yield) was achieved by changing the amount of tritium injected into the primary during firing. On the lowest yield setting no tritium is injected and while the primary fires, it doesn’t generate enough energy to ignite the secondary and the device detonates as a planned fizzle. A little tritium gets you ignition of the secondary, but the reaction doesn’t generate a lot of neutrons which limits fission in the tertiary. By increasing the amount of tritium injected you increase the neutron flux and the more neutrons hitting the U-238 casing increases the energy released by fission and therefore the total yield.*

      Problem is, Tritium is produced in nuclear reactors and a reactor can’t be optimized for both plutonium production and tritium production at the same time. Tritium also has a half life of only 12.3 years and decays into Helium 3 which poisons the reaction by sucking up massive numbers of neutrons. In order to maintain an arsenal of these types of weapons you need a continuous supply of fresh tritium so that it can be replaced in the warheads every 1-2 years. Israel has only one production reactor at Dimona and they would have to sacrifice plutonium production in order to make tritium.

      The US on the other hand, and I assume the Soviets as well, maintained reactors designed just to produce tritium for their weapons programs.

      *Disclaimer: this whole paragraph may be wrong; use caution.

    • John Schilling (History)

      I don’t think it is possible, even now and almost certainly not in 1973, to make a compact Teller-Ulam device work without test data from the primary and probably the interstage. Something on the scale of Ivy Mike you could probably brute-force and say with confidence, “so long as we get >20 kT primary yield, we’ll get fusion”, but as you get smaller the margins become tighter and it seems to matter quite a bit just how the primary yield is modulated. And I don’t see how you get that without at least a validated high-fidelity numerical simulation, where “validated” means a test.

      The Vela incident might have been an Israeli primary and/or code-validation test, but that was 1979. The Israelis could have deployed an untested H-bomb built to foreign design or with foreign codes, but the French didn’t have anything to offer until 1977 and the US wasn’t that tight with Israel until post-1973.

      “Alarm Clock” or “Layer Cake” type devices, would be more practical. And Mordechai Vanunu’s testimony suggests that Israel was producing such devices in the early 1980s, though this is far from conclusive. Simple fusion boosting, if not pushed to extremes, would also have been a possibility, but it would have required early diversion of Israel’s limited breeder-reactor capability from plutonium to tritium production.

      “Best” case for a weapon deployed without testing in 1973 or earlier would I think be an Alarm Clock built around a boosted Mark 12 equivalent. ~1500 kg total weight, fits under a Skyhawk but not a Mirage. ~100 kT nominal yield, ~50 kT if only the boosted primary fires, ~10 kT if the primary fires unboosted. A boosted Mark 7 equivalent with just the ~10 kT and ~50 kT yields but half the weight seems a bit more practical to me; that you could probably shoehorn into a Jericho I for more reliable delivery against defended targets.

  7. Carlo (History)

    I wonder what could have been URSS’s reaction to an Israeli “demonstration” blast. Maybe they ‘d have admonished Israel that an atomic attack on the Arab countries ‘d have brought a Soviet reoly in kind on Israel? or they could even have made a bomb explode at high altitude over Israel? the situation could have easily got out of hand. Creepy indeed.

  8. Jonathan Thornburg (History)

    I would expect Israel to have moved immediately to boosted fission cores, precisely because they can be
    lighter/smaller for the same yield (or equivalently higher-yield for the same size/weight, immune to predetonation (“fizzling”), and use less plutonium overall.

    Boosting requires tritium, and yes, that competes with plutonium in the Dimona production reactors. But in round numbers, 1 mole of neutrons can make 1 mole of plutonium (239 grams) OR 1 mole of tritium (3 grams), i.e., each gram of tritium represents something like 80 grams of foregone plutonium production. I’ve read that US boosted weapons use “a few grams” of tritium per core, so we’re looking at on the order of a few hundred grams of foregone plutonium production per boosted core. That’s only 10% or so of the plutonium in the core.

    In compensation, a boosted core only needs an unboosted yield of something on the order of 1 kT (to make sure to ignite the boosting), so it can use a lot less plutonium
    and/or a lot less high-explosive driver than (say) Fat Man. Since Israel (like most small nuclear powers) would have its bomb production rate (& thus stockpile size) limited by Pu production, being able to cut the core down to (say) 4 kg would be a BIG benefit.

    Cochran & Paine (
    have argued that a “high technology” implosion system can reach 1 kT yeild with only 3 kg of weapons-grade Pu, but that might require a pretty big/heavy high-explosive driver, and quite likely either weapons testing or stealing design info from someone else who has tested.

    But a less-agressive design with boosting seems entirely within Israel’s 1970-era technological capabilities, even discounting the possibility (probability) of successful espionage against one or more of USA/UK/France.

  9. Jonah Speaks (History)

    The current story from Wikipedia on the 1973 war says this:

    During the night of October 8–9, an alarmed Dayan told Meir that “this is the end of the third temple.” He was warning of Israel’s impending total defeat, but “Temple” was also the code word for nuclear weapons. Dayan again raised the nuclear topic in a cabinet meeting, warning that the country was approaching a point of “last resort.” That night Meir authorized the assembly of thirteen 20-kiloton-of-TNT (84 TJ) tactical atomic weapons for Jericho missiles at Sdot Micha Airbase, and F-4 aircraft at Tel Nof Airbase, for use against Syrian and Egyptian targets. They would be used if absolutely necessary to prevent total defeat, but the preparation was done in an easily detectable way, likely as a signal to the United States. Kissinger learned of the nuclear alert on the morning of October 9. That day, President Nixon ordered the commencement of Operation Nickel Grass, an American airlift to replace all of Israel’s material losses. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Kissinger told Sadat that the reason for the U.S. airlift was that the Israelis were close to “going nuclear.”

    Starting on October 9, the Soviet Union began supplying Egypt and Syria by air and by sea…. The sealift may have included Soviet nuclear weapons, which were not unloaded but kept in Alexandria harbor until November to counter the Israeli nuclear preparations, which Soviet satellites had detected. American concern over possible evidence of nuclear warheads for the Soviet Scud missiles in Egypt contributed to Washington’s decision to go to DEFCON 3.

    The Wikipedia article does not mention Hersh and does not use the term “blackmail”. This article may understate the level of nuclear risk, particularly of war between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Does anyone have any risk-relevant information to add to the account?

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Looks like I missed some risk-relevant information, from the same Wikipedia article:

      Later in the evening (9:35 pm) of October 24–25, Brezhnev sent Nixon a “very urgent” letter. In that letter, Brezhnev … stressed the need to “implement” the ceasefire resolution and “invited” the US to join the Soviets “to compel observance of the cease-fire without delay” He then threatened “I will say it straight that if you find it impossible to act jointly with us in this matter, we should be faced with the necessity urgently to consider taking appropriate steps unilaterally.”

      Kissinger immediately passed the message to White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig, who met with Nixon for 20 minutes around 10:30 pm, and reportedly empowered Kissinger to take any necessary action. Kissinger immediately called a meeting of senior officials, including Haig, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, and CIA Director William Colby. The Watergate scandal had reached its apex, and Nixon was so agitated and discomposed that they decided to handle the matter without him:

      The meeting produced a conciliatory response, which was sent (in Nixon’s name) to Brezhnev. At the same time, it was decided to increase the Defense Condition (DEFCON) from four to three. Lastly, they approved a message to Sadat (again, in Nixon’s name) asking him to drop his request for Soviet assistance, and threatening that if the Soviets were to intervene, so would the United States.

      The Soviets quickly detected the increased American defense condition, and were astonished and bewildered at the response. “Who could have imagined the Americans would be so easily frightened,” said Nikolai Podgorny. “It is not reasonable to become engaged in a war with the United States because of Egypt and Syria,” said Premier Alexei Kosygin, while KGB chief Yuri Andropov added that “We shall not unleash the Third World War.” The letter from the US cabinet arrived during the meeting. Brezhnev decided that the Americans were too nervous, and that the best course of action would be to wait to reply. The next morning, the Egyptians agreed to the American suggestion, and dropped their request for assistance from the Soviets, bringing the crisis to an end.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      The Wikipedia article relies on Farr’s 1999 overview ( ) as a source for the nuclear claims; Farr’s literally first listed reference is Hersh’s “The Sampson Option”, though he then goes on to quite a huge list of additional sources.

      The particular sequence listed in Wikipedia is Farr’s ref 62, which he sources to:

      “62. Hersh, op. cit., 217, 222-226, and Weissman and Krosney, op. cit., 107.”

      The second listed source is:
      Weissman, Steve and Krosney, Herbert. The Islamic Bomb: The Nuclear Threat to Israel and the Middle East. (New York, New York: Times Books, 1981)

      pp 107 in that book seems to be the start of the section “The Making of the Israeli Bomb” – but I can’t read enough in the Google Books freebie to tell. I don’t own it.

      If Hersh is doubted, then this would count as a derivative source at least to some extent and also be doubted.

  10. Jonah Speaks (History)

    I am trying to clear up a loose end on the Jericho missiles.

    Avner Cohen indicates that William Quandt, the NSC point man for Middle East issues during the 1973 War, “confirmed openly in 1991 that the United States government did pick up ‘something’ during the war that indicated that Israel had placed its Jericho missiles on some sort of alert.” Avner says, “Quandt’s testimony, vague as it was, was not about nukes but rather about missiles.” This dismissal won’t do, because the Jericho missiles were only usable for nuclear operations. See and

    Avner also says that in October 1973, the Jericho I missile was not yet operational (no source given). Even if true, this fact by itself would not discredit Quandt’s testimony. Rather, it could simply indicate that Israel had undertaken a fake-out operation, presumably to bluff American intelligence into believing that Israel was preparing for nuclear launch.

    An alternative hypothesis is that the Jericho missiles really were operational. Dayan may have felt he was simply doing his job by preparing his operational missiles for possible launch in a worst-case scenario, even though he did not yet have authority from Meir to mate those missiles with nuclear warheads. Not knowing the whole story, including Meir’s limits on Dayan’s authority, American intelligence may have overestimated the extent of Israel’s nuclear preparations.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      To add to the mystery, here is what Avner said in 2003:
      “By that time, American intelligence had signs that Israel had put its Jericho missiles, which could be fitted with nuclear warheads, on high alert (the Israelis had done so in an easily detectible way, probably to sway the Americans into preventive action).” (see page 2 of web article) “The Last Nuclear Moment,” By Avner Cohen, October 06, 2003.

      For some reason Avner has changed his mind on this. I am just not clear why.

  11. Rob Goldston (History)

    OK, I’ll take the bait: Avner, what about Ben Gurion in 1962?

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