The 1967 Six-Day War:
New Israeli Perspective, 50 Years Later

Avner Cohen

 

Introduction [1]

Fifty years ago, war transformed the Middle East. Six memorable days, known to Israelis as the Six-Day War and to Arabs and others as the 1967 War, redrew the region’s landscape in fundamental ways. In those six days, Israel defeated three Arab armies, gained territory four times its original size, and became the preeminent military power in the region. The war transformed Israel from a nation that perceived itself as fighting for survival into an occupier and regional powerhouse.

The consequences for the Arab coalition were similarly transformative. For those “on the line of confrontation,” as Arab states bordering Israel were called, the war brought the loss of vast territories and crushing humiliation, all the more so for the Palestinians. Gamal Abdel Nasser, President of Egypt and the most prominent Arab leader at the time, survived the war but his leadership never recovered. The stunning defeat initiated the demise of his brand of secular pan-Arabism that was once an assertive ideological force in the Arab world.

The 1967 Six-Day War is probably the most important and most researched event in the Middle East since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Volumes of studies have been produced over the five decades since. Yet, one important aspect remains obscure and untold: the crisis’ nuclear dimension. On this issue, both sides remain bonded together by layers of taboo, silence, and secrecy.

On this 50th anniversary of the 1967 war, the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP) has released historical testimonies and documents revealing that the crisis had an underlying twofold nuclear dimension.  First, Israel’s nuclear program played a vital role on the threat perception of both sides. Second, and more significantly, those testimonies reveal now that Israel, during the May–June 1967 crisis, first assembled its first rudimentary nuclear devices. Furthermore, at that same juncture, some senior Israeli officials even considered how to detonate a nuclear explosive for demonstrative purpose in the unlikely case of a “doomsday” scenario. It was fifty years ago that Israel first crossed the nuclear threshold, making the 1967 crisis a landmark in global nuclear history. 

Old and New Narratives of the 1967 Crisis  

While potential for renewed Arab-Israeli hostility simmered in early 1967, most regional actors neither expected nor sought a new military confrontation. This is particularly true for the leaders of Israel and Egypt: Levi Eshkol and Gamal Abdel Nasser. How, then, did a major war erupt seemingly against the wishes of both sides?

The conventional wisdom among historians is that a series of mishaps and missteps —deceptions, miscalculations, misperceptions, and the like—led each party into a war that neither leader planned for nor desired.[2] Israeli-inspired narratives typically cite false Soviet intelligence reports of imminent Israeli attack on Syria as the trigger that launched Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser on a series of miscalculated decisions (massing troops in the Sinai, removing the UN Emergency Force deployed there after the 1956 Suez crisis, and closing the Strait of Tiran to Israeli shipping) that ultimately made war inevitable.

Meanwhile, Arab-inspired narratives assert that Israel’s provocative statements against the Syrian regime induced Nasser’s reaction. Other narratives divide responsibility between various players—Arabs, Soviets, Israelis, and even the United Nations. Yet all these narratives share the fundamental idea that the crisis sprung from a series of miscalculations that ultimately led to the failure of conventional deterrence.

These narratives also tend to shy away from the nuclear issue; the Israeli nuclear program plays almost no role in those narratives. When the nuclear issue is mentioned, it is in passing and treated as anecdotal rather than essential. This is not surprising given a tendency on both sides to look the other way on the relevance of nuclear weapons to the Arab-Israeli conflict.[3]

This aversion is in part due to a lack of public information, but can be seen also in classified testimonies of Israeli military leaders taken shortly after the war. For example, Yitzhak Rabin’s lengthy, top-secret testimony from 1969 refers only three times—all in passing—to his serious concerns that the Dimona nuclear site might be a target for Egyptian attack. Nor does Rabin directly mention his own real-time concerns over attack on Dimona during the build-up to the war, despite the fact these concerns can be found explicitly and extensively in the original Israeli documentation of the crisis.[4] This omission is likely a manifestation of the deep-seated taboo on the topic of Dimona. On the nuclear issue, both sides are bonded together by layers of silence and secrecy.

However, recent Israeli-based historical research has shed new light on the obscure nuclear dimension  of the 1967 crisis. Over the last two decades, more evidence on the role Dimona played in shaping Israeli and Egyptian perceptions of each other has surfaced. This introductory essay utilizes this recent historical material to further revisit and clarify the significance of Dimona and provide greater context to the crisis and war of 1967.[5]

An Alternative Nuclear Narrative: The Pre-Crisis Period (1965-67)

By 1966, Israel was moving—quietly but decisively—towards the nuclear weapons threshold. Yet the nuclear project suffered growing pains. The project’s two hubs of activity were run as separate organizations, the Negev Nuclear Research Center at Dimona (KAMAG) and the Weapons Development Authority (RAFAEL) in Northern Israel. But in 1966 the two were incorporated under the management of one scientific administration, headed by Professor Israel Dostrovsky of the Weizmann Institute. The Israeli public knew nothing about these developments; the little that was publicly announced was that Prime Minister Levi Eshkol named Dostrovsky as the new director general of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) under the prime minister as its chair. 

Israel probably could have tested a nuclear device within a year or so, had its political leaders chosen that path.  Such a test would have made Israel the world’s sixth nuclear weapons state. As a matter of international law, there was nothing improper about following that path; China and France had tested only a few years prior. But Prime Minister Eshkol was apprehensive about the program’s final objectives and political consequences.  In May 1966, about the time of Dostrovsky’s appointment, Eshkol stated in the Knesset that Israel had no nuclear weapons and “[will] not be the first to introduce them to the Middle East.”[6]

Though Eshkol was unsettled about the project’s final trajectory, he hardly intervened in the project’s progress, except for ruling out a nuclear test on political grounds. “Do you think that the world would congratulate us for our achievement?” Eshkol used to ask sarcastically of those who entertained the idea of a test.[7] In general, Eshkol shied away from the strategic and political implications of the program; he had little appetite for debating the issue within his cabinet. The nuclear project continued to progress, but with limited political guidance from the top.[8]

In line with IDF intelligence assessments, Eshkol worried about a bellicose Egyptian reaction to Dimona, should Egypt conclude Israel was acquiring a bomb. Responding to these concerns, Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin ordered in November 1965 the Chief of Military Intelligence (AMAN), Aharon Yariv, to develop a collection system, codenamed “Senator,” to provide the IDF an early warning about Egyptian hostile intentions on Dimona. In an exclusive testimony in this collection, General Yariv’s biographer, Brigadier General (retired) Amos Gilboa, reveals how project “Senator” came into being.[9]

The creation of “Senator” highlights how the concerns over Dimona were deeply engraved in the IDF strategic outlook.  One should keep in mind Rabin’s perception of Dimona at the time. In March 1965, Rabin mentioned Dimona’s “lack of international legitimacy” as something that could trigger Egypt into military action: “If Egypt bombs Dimona, and we want to wage a war, we could be issued an ultimatum from the entire world.”[10]

Although Nasser’s 1960 pledge of waging a “preventive war” to stop Israel from developing nuclear weapons was generally viewed by Israeli intelligence as not too credible, especially while the Egyptian army was bogged down in Yemen, a limited, aerial attack at Dimona was taken as a feasible threat.[11] In late 1966, Rabin cited concerns over Dimona as a reason why Israel should limit its military response against Syria. “There is one vital object in the south,” Rabin reminded his colleagues, “which is an ideal object for a limited attack, and of which Egypt may have the support of the entire world.”[12]

Then, in late 1966, Eshkol was further shaken when an accident at Dimona killed an employee and contaminated a large, critical working area. Three months later, in a “secret” letter to Washington, US Ambassador Walworth Barbour reported he had never seen Eshkol so uncertain about the future of the nuclear project, and proposed it was time for innovative diplomacy on the nuclear issue. Barbour dismissed US intelligence reports that Israel was only weeks from the bomb and told his colleagues in Washington that Dimona was “not running at full blast.”[13]

Barbour’s estimate notwithstanding, Israel was fast advancing toward the nuclear threshold, as Eshkol apparently remained unsure whether crossing the threshold would best serve Israel’s interests. He appeared open to creative political solutions. This may have put him at odds with the leaders of the nuclear project, who were committed to moving forward. For them, it was virtually inconceivable to stop the project short. The founding ethos said that Israel must achieve a tangible nuclear capability, not something virtual and amorphous.[14]

The 1967 Crisis: The Two Nuclear Dimensions

Then came the crisis of May 1967.  Within three extraordinary weeks Israel lurched from normalcy to an existential crisis of a kind not faced since its birth in 1948. During the crisis, the nuclear dimension surfaced in two ways. The first was the dramatic role of Dimona in shaping, maybe even precipitating, the Israeli sense of the crisis. The second was even more dramatic: during the crisis, almost overnight, Israel assembled its first nuclear devices. Both nuclear aspects of the crisis were kept hidden at the time. The assembly of a first device has remained publicly unknown to this day.

Dimona as a Possible Target? Dimona as a Trigger?

As the 1967 crisis began, concerns over Dimona became paramount in Israeli assessments of the situation. As early as May 16, the third day of the Egyptian mobilization, reports about the transfer of Egyptian IL-28 bombers to the Sinai prompted Rabin to alert his colleagues that Dimona might be the target.[15]

The next day, as Rabin and Yariv were briefing the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, two Egyptian MiG 21s flew over Dimona, entering Israel at high altitude from Jordan. Israeli jets launched to intercept the invading MiGs, but due to short warning and high altitude they were unable to engage. Israeli pilots were not authorized to cross the border into the Sinai.[16]  This collection includes a testimony of one of the Israeli Mirage pilots, Colonel Avraham Salmon, who took part in the aerial encounter. 

That reconnaissance flight over Dimona, along with the Egyptian request to remove the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF) from its positions on the border, convinced the Israeli leadership that the crisis was serious. On that night, Eshkol and Rabin decided to raise readiness of the Israeli Air Force (IAF), to mobilize the air defense system, to call up an additional armor brigade, and to beef up ground security in Dimona. The IAF was given authorization to cross the border in pursuit of invading MiGs.[17]

At a general staff meeting on May 19, General Yariv presented four possible Egyptian strategic objectives, including the possibility of aerial attack against Dimona as an operational threat.[18] By that evening the IAF was now authorized, in the case of an Egyptian attack on Dimona, to respond instantly against all Egyptian airfields in the Sinai.[19]

The second reconnaissance flight over Dimona took place mid-day on May 26, as the ministerial defense committee was in session with Prime Minister Eshkol at his Tel Aviv office. The previous day, there had been a great deal of anxiety about a surprise Egyptian air strike aimed at Dimona and Israeli air bases; there were signs that such an attack could come at any moment. In response, Eshkol fired off two alarming cables to Foreign Minister Abba Eban in Washington, the second cable stating, “Dramatic changes happened” and an attack on Israel – Dimona and the air bases -- could be imminent. Eban was instructed to urge the US government to issue immediately a stern warning to Egypt that any attack on Israel would be taken as an attack against the United States itself.[20]

According to the Ministerial minutes, while in the meeting, Rabin was notified that four high-altitude Egyptian MiG 21s had penetrated Israeli air space. Rabin left the room to receive the full report and then reported back to the cabinet. Two of the invading MiGs had broken and flown toward Dimona. Israeli Mirage jets tried to engage the MiGs on their way back to the Sinai, Rabin told the cabinet, chasing them deep into the Sinai Peninsula, but were ultimately unable to shoot them down. The incident dramatically changed the atmosphere in the cabinet meeting.[21]

Minutes later Rabin asked the prime minister for a private consultation with himself and General Ezer Weizman in which Rabin informed Eshkol of new raw-intelligence he had just received: Israeli intelligence had intercepted a “strange and worrisome transmission referring to coordination between fighter jets and bombers.” Rabin added that this might be indicative of a coordinated aerial-attack on Dimona. Weizmann was even more alarmist, saying that all indications were that Egypt planned to attack Dimona, with at least 40 aircraft, possibly even that night.[22]

Eshkol returned to the cabinet meeting, keeping this additional information to himself. He told his colleagues the aerial incident would be shared with the US, but without telling the Americans it was over Dimona. Decades later, Moshe Carmel, a cabinet minister at the time, recalled the sense of “shock” the minsters felt when they were notified that “a squadron” of Egyptian aircraft was flying over Dimona.[23]

Three hours later, Eshkol held another meeting, this time with the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The meeting included briefings from Yariv, Rabin and Eshkol. The 17-page transcript of the meeting is now available in full at the Israel State Archive. Towards the end of the meeting, Prime Minister Eshkol gave his own briefing, in which he reiterated his conviction that Israel could not resort to military action before exhausting all diplomatic means available. Then, spontaneously, the prime minister told the committee about the Egyptian flight over Dimona, and added something else—a few opaque words about a certain, mysterious weapon. The minutes go as follows:

Today four [Egyptian] airplanes flew over Israel. 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 others [other countries] in the hundreds and thousands.[24]

Eshkol’s wording is veiled, but nevertheless revealing. We are not completely sure what Eshkol told the committee, and to what extent the minutes reflect his exact wording. He may inadvertently have told the committee more than the minutes say, and subsequently asked to remove his exact phrasing. It may well be that the minutes were subsequently fixed to make them more obscure. Still, it is not that difficult to decipher what the prime minister referred to as a “certain weapon [whose existence] can be significant, … weapons that exists by others [states] in hundreds, even thousands.” This was, at least in the view of this author, Eshkol’s subtle revelation that Israeli possessed a bomb.

How real were the Israeli ever-present concerns over Dimona?  Was Dimona a true high priority Egyptian target, possibly even the ultimate (but hidden) trigger for the entire crisis, or perhaps it might have been mostly an Israeli obsession, a mirror image of perceived Egyptian thinking?  These are still open questions and it may be still impossible to address them with precision and clarity.  The state of knowledge on the Egyptian side is still partial, limited, and highly sensitive.  Unlike Israeli records, Egyptian documents, military and political, are unavailable.   And yet, based on memoirs and interviews of several Egyptians who were in a position to know, it appears that the Israeli assessment from May 25th that an Egyptian attack was imminent, and may come at “any moment,” had strong basis in reality.[25]

It is now widely believed that Egypt did plan to launch an aerial attack on Israel on the morning hours of May 27.  Israeli air bases and (probably) Dimona were the key targets.  In fact an order to carry out that operation had been issued then retracted according to different Egyptian accounts (e.g., Fawzi, Heikal). As noted, it was American blunt direct threats to Nasser, referring to such an attack as an act of “suicide,” issued on May 26 on behalf of President Johnson, as well as the Soviet warning that apparently forced Nasser to cancel the plan at the very last moment.  This NPIHP collection addresses this issue through a lengthy testimony of Egyptian Defense Minister at the time, Shams Al Din Badran, accompanied by an Egyptian-based narrative by NPIHP affiliate, Dr. Hassan Elbahtimy

Ya’tza Testimony and the “Shimshon” Contingency Plan

The second nuclear dimension of the 1967 crisis is the tale of Israel’s first nuclear alert. The first public hint of this alert appeared fifteen years after the war thanks to Munya Mardor, the founder and first director general of Israel’s Weapons Development Authority (RAFAEL). In his 1981 semi-autobiographical book Rafael, Mardor cites a diary entry from May 28, describing a visit to the “assembly hall,” watching teams of scientists and technicians “assembling and testing the weapon system, the development and production of which was completed prior to the war… a weapons system they brought to operational alert.”[26]

Mardor did not explain what this unique “weapon system” was or why it deserved to be called “fateful.” Nor could he write more explicitly. But one obvious explanation is that as the likelihood of war intensified, Israel did something it never had done previously: its scientists assembled all the components, including the handful of nuclear cores it had, into improvised but operational explosive devices.

In my book, Israel and the Bomb (1998), I explicated Mardor’s diary entry, based on additional first hand testimony from a prominent, authoritative, and anonymous Israeli source, writing that “on the eve of the war Israel ‘improvised’ two (possibly three) nuclear explosive devices.”[27] I suggested—based in part on a veiled passage in Shimon Peres’ 1995 Memoirs—that during the May crisis, and apparently upon the appointment of Moshe Dayan as Minister of Defense on June 1, 1967, Peres proposed that Israel test a nuclear device as a way to prevent a war.[28] I also cited Professor Yuval Ne’eman who told me about Dayan’s reaction to his briefing on the newly created nuclear capability on the eve of the 1967 war—“this [capability] is not for now, maybe for the next round.”[29]

While I knew that during the 1967 crisis Israel crossed the nuclear threshold— Israel had improvised two or three explosive nuclear devices—I did not know any concrete details about the who, when, and why involved in that crash effort. Did the initiative come from the political top or from the developers and managers in the field? What was the strategic purpose of this rushed assembly? What was the guiding idea? To what extent was the IDF involved, and at what level? Was there any operational contingency plan? How far did they go and how close was it to execution?

In 1999 I obtained an extraordinary first-hand testimony that addressed many of these questions. That summer, I met former Brigadier General Yitzhak Ya’akov (nicknamed Ya’tza), who in 1967, as the IDF colonel in charge of weapons development, was the chief liaison between the IDF and all the civilian defense industries, including the nuclear project.

In May 1967, Ya’tza took it upon himself – with his commanders’ blessing -- to add an operational-military dimension to the fast-created, new situation on the ground. He drew a preliminary contingency plan – codenamed “Shimshon” (“Samson”) – proposing how such an improvised device could be exploded for demonstrative purposes. To be clear, the operation would have been purely demonstrative, yet the crash effort to make such a contingency plan possible is indicative of the enormous anxiety in Israel in those days.

In a series of interviews I conducted with Ya’tza during the summer and the fall of 1999, he told me a great deal about his role in conceiving, proposing, planning and ultimately preparing for the Shimshon operation—that is, exploding a nuclear device—to be conducted in a desolate part of the eastern Sinai. Ya’tza told me how the idea of adding a military operation came to him after he visited that “assembly hall” and viewed the “spider-like” device; how he drafted that operation order and how he and his boss at the time, General Rechavam Ze’evy (nicknamed Gandi) went to Chief of Staff Rabin to have him sign it off; how he formed a small interdisciplinary military team with the mission to support carry out the mission; and more.

Two “Super Frelon” helicopters, the largest in the Israeli Air Force at the time, were allocated for the operation. It was greatly improvised, there were no clear procedures and well-defined lines of command, but Ya’tza believed that he was named as the military commander of the Shimshon operation (he believed that Israel Dostrovsky, the head of the nuclear agency, was named as the overall individual in charge of the operation).

The underlying idea behind the Shimshon plan, according to Ya’tza, was to prepare and provide the prime minister another, last resort “doomsday” option, a “thinking the unthinkable” kind option for a most extreme (and unlikely) scenario. If everything else failed and Israel’s national existence was in peril, the state would still have a trump card. Ya’tza recognized that he was involved in drafting a plan that was highly unlikely to be executed, and yet, according to his testimony, by June 5, the first day of the 1967 Six Day War, he and his small team were ready, just in case.

Historical Assessment

Ya’tza’s never-before-told interview from 1999 is the centerpiece of this NPIHP 1967 Six-Day War anniversary collection. It is extraordinary because it is the first detailed, personal testimony on Israel’s 1967 nuclear alert from the perspective of someone so directly involved. However, as a piece of oral history, it has certain limitations, which Ya’tza was the first to recognize.

Fundamentally, this is a testimony of a single man based entirely on memory of events that took place more than thirty-two years earlier. While some aspects of the tale come through vividly, others are foggy or even non-existent. Sometimes the narrative is more a matter of guesswork than true recollection. Indeed, two years prior to my conversation with Ya’tza he wrote a fictionalized version of those events under the title Atomic Incident, where missing memories were filled with educated guesses. Ultimately, the testimony reflects one person’s point of view.

One must also keep in mind that Ya’tza did not know all aspects of that nuclear crash activity and alert; some key events and conversations took place at levels above him, some at levels below him and some at levels parallel to him in different places and organizations. Anybody who knows something about human memory must acknowledge the fragility and the subjectivity of human memory.

For this reason, I made efforts to find supplementary pieces of historical evidence. I already noted Prime Minister Eshkol’s veiled comment at the meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in the afternoon of May 26, 1967. We learn from that paragraph two important things. First, that Eshkol was fully informed about the crash nuclear activity that was going on during the crisis, even if he did not initiate that crash activity. Second, that Eshkol thought that there could be some circumstances that that the presence of that weapons “could be significant.”

The other related historical evidence is a portion from the oral history interview given by former Chief of Staff Zvi Tzur in 2001 to the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Center. Tzur arrived at the Ministry of Defense on June 2, 1967 as the chief aid to the newly installed minister of defense, Moshe Dayan. In that capacity, Dayan asked Tzur to assume all the responsibilities of Zevi Dinstein, Eshkol’s deputy minister of defense, including the nuclear portfolio.[30]

Regarding Tzur’s testimony, one must have some caveats in mind. First, unlike Ya’tza, Tzur’s testimony is far more restrained in what he allowed himself to discuss regarding the Israeli nuclear program. Not only does Tzur’s testimony not go into any of the specifics which Ya’tza did, but Tzur made plain his disapproval of, even annoyance at, Ya’tza’s loose talk. One should recall that Tzur’s testimony was made while Ya’tza was under arrest for unauthorized disclosure of classified information. Second, neither Tzur nor his interviewer had a detailed knowledge of what Ya’tza had actually revealed.  Third, Tzur’s testimony was given in 2001, more than thirty-four years after the events. Finally, Tzur’s testimony was raw, unedited, and was clearly never corrected by Tzur himself. The outcome is a testimony that sounds at times unclear, confusing, even self-contradictory.

Yet, notwithstanding its flaws, Tzur’s testimony is helpful because it provides another perspective on the nuclear developments associated with the 1967 crisis. From Tzur’s perspective, veiled and constrained as it is, the crash activity that took place during the crisis was a way to explore Israel’s technical capabilities at the time and the options that lent them. As Tzur put it: “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. In those days we didn’t even have that option.” Tzur also confirms, though without going into too much detail, that soon upon his arrival (possibly on the first day of the war, June 5, 1967) he appointed a two-man committee—Dostrovsky and Ya’tza— to examine “if something [i.e., a test] can be done, but not to do it.”

It is also apparent that Tzur viewed the technical capability as very embryonic and rudimentary; implying he would not have recommended using it. Nor did he think it made sense politically for Israel to demonstrate its capability.

Epilogue: Fifty Years Later

From an historical perspective, fifty years later, how should we assess Ya’tza’s testimony? In retrospect, how significant were these events?

There are no simple answers, as very little evidence is available. Even Ya’tza himself sounds unclear on the question of how real it all was. In some points in the interview, Ya’tza talked about “Shimshon” as a genuine military plan that could have been executed under some, albeit unlikely, circumstances. On other occasions he referred to it, like Tzur, as an amateurish and improvised idea, conceding implicitly that nobody at the top would or could have taken it too seriously.  

In my view, “Shimshon” was more a technical-theoretical exercise for an unlikely scenario than a genuine, military contingency plan. One should keep in mind that Dostrovsky, Tzur, and (to some degree) Rabin (not Ya’tza) would have been the people who would advise the political decision-makers what could be done with the newly formed capability.

I ultimately agree with Tzur’s view that on the eve of the 1967 War, Israel’s leadership was not seriously considering conducting—or even capable of conducting—a nuclear demonstration. Yet Ya’tza’s testimony does reveal—and for the first time from an identifiable source—that Israel had the capability to improvise a nuclear explosive device in June 1967.

While it is an overstatement to suggest that the eve of the Six-Day War was one of nuclear history’s “close calls”, the war brought about a milestone in the Israeli nuclear program.  It was during that crisis that Israel crossed the nuclear threshold.  Such an event, by definition, was also a milestone in world’s nuclear history.   

 

Interview with Yitzhak "Ya’tza" Ya’akov  

Biography and Interview Notes 

Yitzhak Ya’acov (1926-2013), known his entire life by the nickname “Ya’tza,” was a Brigadier General in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in charge of weapons research and development (R&D). He was at the center of Israel’s first nuclear alert on the eve of the 1967 war.     

 

Interview with Amos Gilboa

Biography and Interview Notes

Amos Gilboa (1939- ) served in the Israeli military intelligence and held several senior positions in the Intelligence Corps and the Intelligence Department of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) General Staff.  He is the author of Mr. Intelligence: Arale, the Biography of General Aharon Yariv (Tel Aviv: Yediot Achronot, 2013). 

 

Interview with Avrahm Salmon

Biography and Interview Notes

Avrahm Salmon (1942-  ) is a legendary Israeli combat jet pilot in the Israel Air Force (IAF). On May 17, 1967 he scrambld to intercept an invading high-altitude Egyptian MiG-21 that flew over Dimona.

 

Interview with Tzvi Tzur

Biography and Interview Notes

Tzvi Tzur (1923–2004), was the Israeli Defense Force’s sixth chief of staff (1961-1963) and subsequently the top civil lieutenant to Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan (1967-1974).  

 

Document Notes



Avner Cohen is a Professor of Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS) and the author of Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia 1998); he is also a Global Fellow with the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

 

 

 


[1] I am deeply indebted to both individuals and institutions of whom without their assistance and support this new historical collection would have been impossible.  First and foremost, thanks to this great historical project, the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP), hosted by the History and Public Policy (HAPP) program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, which created a research heaven to nuclear historians from all over the world.  I have been an affiliate with this project since its birth in 2011, where it became the custodian of the “Avner Cohen Collection.”  This institutional partnership has made me a Global Fellow with this program. 

Individually, many thanks to all the people who make the NPIHP possible: Dr. Christian Osterman, HAPP director and NPIHP co-director (along with Dr. Leopoldo Nuti, the other co-director) who immediately gave his blessing to this collection since I proposed it more than a year ago; the program members who made it all happened, Kian Byrne that serves as my “production manager,” Laura Deal, the great webmaster of the Digital Archive, Evan Pikulski and Charles Kraus who provided great deal of editorial assistance.  Special thanks to two dear colleagues, Dr. William Burr of the National Security Archive and Dr. James Hershberg of George Washington University, who at the very last moment provided me with extra pair of eyes as friendly peer reviewers. 

Special thanks to NPIHP affiliate Adam Raz, an Israeli author and historian, who generously provided this collection with some precious Israeli archival material; Adam also conducted the interview with General Amos Gilboa.  Yechezkel (“Hezi”) Shmueli, a former Israeli journalist and educator, assisted us with the interview with Avraham Salmon. Then, special gratitude to my colleague and NPIHP affiliate, Dr. Hassan Elbahtimy of Kings College in London, who is my partner to this historical project.  We are excited to have Hassan’s contribution to this 1967 collection.  

Finally, special appreciation to my own home institute, the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS).  The Middlebury Institute provided me travel and research funds, even allowed me to turn one of my courses into a small research seminar on the 1967 war.  Last, but not least, I am grateful to our Eva Gudbergsdottir, from our media department, for all her communication assistance.

[2] This conventional wisdom was articulated forcefully by Richard B. Parker in his The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East (Indiana University Press, 1993) and subsequently in his The Six Day War: A Retrospective (University Press of Florida, 1996) as well as in many other works. See also Michael B. Oren, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), especially pp. 1-60.

[3] American scholarship on the 1967 crisis also makes few references to the nuclear issue. For example, Richard Parker’s aforementioned study on the origins of the 1967 War mentions the nuclear issue in passing as a possible route for further historical research. He includes only one direct reference to Dimona, to emphasize the impact it had on US-Egyptian relations.  Middle East historian Douglas Little touches briefly on the role Dimona played in encouraging more belligerent Arab attitudes from 1966 onwards in his influential book, American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina press, 1992), but he stops short of delving deeper into the nuclear question.

[4] Probably the most intriguing personal testimony was taped in a series of meetings in the Fall of 1969 by former Israeli Chief of Staff, Yitzhak Rabin. Initially classified “top secret” by the history department of the IDF, the Rabin testimony was declassified in 2016 and made available through The Israel Defense Forces and Defense Establishment Archives (IDFA).   http://www.archives.mod.gov.il/pages/Exhibitions/SixDayWar/1168-192-1974/index.html

[5] The first Israeli scholar to propose a nuclear narrative of the 1967 War was Shlomo Aronson beginning in the late 1970s. Notably, his distinct narrative is logical-reconstructive, somewhat speculative, in nature rather than empirical-based. One should note, however, that at that time no evidence was either available or allowed. Aronson summarized his narrative in Israel’s Nuclear Programme, the Six Day War and its Ramifications (London: Kings College Mediterranean Series, 1999). See also, Aluf Benn, “The First Nuclear War,” [in Hebrew], Ha’aretz, June 11, 1993.  Since then, there has been a surge of writing on the subject. Here is a list of related studies to this essay: Michael Oren, Six Days or War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Ami Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order! (Tel Aviv: Ma’archot, 2004) [in Hebrew]; a shorter English version, Ami Gluska, The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 War (London: Routledge, 2007(; Shimon Golan, A War on Three Fronts (Tel Aviv: Ma’archot, 2007) [in Hebrew]; Amos Gilboa, Mr. Intelligence, Aharon Yariv (Tel Aviv: Yediot Sfarim, 2013) [in Hebrew]; Danny Shalom, Like a Bolt out of the Blue (Rishon Lezion: Bavir Publications, 2002) [in Hebrew]; Tom Segev, 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that transformed the Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 2002); Adam Raz, The Struggle for the Bomb (Tel Aviv: Carmel Publication House, 2015) [in Hebrew]; Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez, Foxbats Over Dimona: The Soviet Nuclear Gamble in the Six Day War (New haven: Yale University Press, 2007); Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Avner Cohen, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); Avner Cohen, “Crossing the Threshold: The Untold Nuclear Dimension of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and Its Contemporary Lessons,” in Arms Control Today, June 2007, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_06/Cohen.  

[6] This is Israel’s formula of nuclear ambiguity.  For the history of the formula, see Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 231-35.

[7]  Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 238, n.61

[8]  This is a point that the late Avraham Hermony made in his interview with me in 1992-93. The interview is part of the digital archive of the NPIHP.  http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/117849

[9] Gilboa, Mr. Intelligence, 185, 201

[10] Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 71. In the English version, The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967, the quote appears on p. 34. IDF Chief of Staff General Yitzhak Rabin’s statement sounds off-course to contemporary readers, but it reveals how Israelis thought about the nuclear project in those days.

[11] On Nasser’s reference to “preventive war” over Dimona see Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, 244, 255-57.

[12]  Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 71 (in the English edition, Gluska, The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 34).

[13] Walworth Barbour letter to Rodger Davies, March 9, 1967, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-68, Vol. XVIII, 391.

[14] For more details on some probes see Avner Cohen, “Crossing the Threshold: The Untold Nuclear Dimension of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and Its Contemporary Lessons,” in Arms Control Today, June 2007, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2007_06/Cohen

[15] Shimon Golan, A War in Three Fronts , p. 59. Since Golan is a senior historian at the IDF, his book is considered the closest to the official IDF history of the 1967 crisis and war. See also Gilboa, Mr. Intelligence, 241; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 220.

[16] Golan, A War in Three Fronts, 63-64; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 227-29 (English  edition, Gluska, The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 p. 128). The first oblique confirmation of the reconnaissance flights, without mentioning Dimona, appears in the Hebrew longer version of Yitzhak Rabin’s memoir, Pinkas Sherut (Tel Aviv: 1979) [in Hebrew], 136-37, 163-66. In 1987 the issue appears in Eitan Haber (based on General Israel Lior’s memoir), Today War Will Break Out (Tel Aviv; Edanim Press, 1987) [in Hebrew], 161-63, 186-8. See also Ginor-Remez Foxbats Over Dimona where a claim is made that those reconnaissance flights were made by Soviet MiG-25s (Foxbats) flown by Soviet pilots. IDF and IAF official histories do not support that claim.

[17] Golan, A War in Three Fronts, 64-65; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 228-29; Rabin, The Rabin Memorial, 70.

[18]  Golan, A War in Three Fronts, 68-70; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 249-53; Amos Gilboa, Mr. Intelligence, 245.

[19]  Golan, A War in Three Fronts, 73; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 252-53.

[20]  It is still not fully clear what specific piece of intelligence triggered that mood of imminent Egyptian attack in the IDF headquarters on the evening hours of the 25th.  Both Rabin and Yariv subsequently distanced themselves from that alarm. Eban got the most alarming cable hours after receiving the first, and passed it immediately to the highest levels in the US, both the State Department and White House. US policy-makers acted quickly and threatened Egypt in the strongest language against initiating attack, even though the intelligence professionals did not believe Egypt was on the verge of doing so. Years later, it became known, through Egyptian testimonies and memoirs of former senior officials, that indeed an Egyptian all-out aerial attack against Israel was planned for the dawn of May 27. On the Israeli sense of gloom and doom on that evening of May 25 see the following sources: Golan, A War in Three Fronts, 107-09; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 288-92, 492-93; Oren, Six Days of War, 110-116. See also William B. Quandt, Peace Process (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993), 512, n. 38.

[21]  Golan, A War in Three Fronts, 111-12; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 252-53. In May 2017, I had a phone conversation with one of the Israeli pilots, Colonel Giora Even (Espstein), who participated in that aerial encounter. He denied the veracity of what Rabin told the cabinet. According to Even, the Israeli pilots were not authorized to chase the Migs into the Sinai. In retrospect, he added, he regrets complying to the controller’s instructions to end the chase.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giora_Epstein

[22]  A censored version of the entire meeting is now available at the site of Israel State Archive, http://www.archives.gov.il/archives/#/Archive/0b0717068031be32/File/0b0717068526a92b/Item/090717068526a97f. This collection includes the relevant pages taken from that site. A near verbatim account of the ministerial meeting appears in Golan, A War in Three Fronts, 112; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 300-303 Gluska, The Israeli Military and Origins of the 1967 War, 177

[23] Golan, A War in Three Fronts, 112; Gluska, Eshkol, Give the Order!, 300-303, and 495, n. 17.

[24] We have included this document in this NPIHP release of the Israel State Archive release for the 1967). 

[25] Years later Egyptian Chief of Staff General Muhammad Fawzi alluded in his memoirs to an Egyptian aerial attack against Israel on May 27 that was cancelled by Nasser at the very last moment.  Not only the United States warned Nasser that an attack on Israel would be suicidal, Hours before that Egyptian aerial attack on Israeli airbases and Dimona Nasser received also a surprise nocturnal visit by the Soviet Ambassador, Dmitri Pojidaev, reading him a stern warning by the Soviet premier, Alexi Kosygin, against military action. (A similar warning was issued about the same time to Prime Minister Eshkol by Soviet Ambassador to Israel Sergei Chuvakhin).  On these Soviet nocturnal warnings to both Egypt and Israel, see Oren, Six Days of War, 116-19; Gluska, The Israeli Military and the Origins of the 1967 War, 184-85.  On the Egyptian attack for May 27 see also William B. Quandt, Peace Process (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1993), p. 512, n. 38.

[26] Munya Mardor, RAFAEL (Tel Aviv: Misrad Habitachon, 1981), p. 499. The relevant quote is cited in Israel and the Bomb, 273.  

[27] Israel and the Bomb, 274.

[28] Shimon Peres, Battling for Peace: Memoirs (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1995), 166-67; cited in Israel and the Bomb, 275One should recall that in June 1967 Peres did not have any official role in government; he was a Knesset Member from David Ben Gurion’s opposition party (RAFI), and so was Moshe Dayan until his appointment as Minister of Defense on June 1.

[29] Yuval Ne’eman, interview with this author, April 2006 (two weeks prior to his death).

[30] Dostrovsky, the nuclear chief, had two bosses: Eshkol as his ultimate political boss, and Tzur as his superior administrator.