Interview with Tzvi Tzur

Biography

Tzvi Tzur (1923 – 2004), was the Israeli Defense Force’s (IDF) sixth chief of staff (1961-63) and subsequently the top civil lieutenant to Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan (1967-74). 

Born in the Zaslav in the Soviet Union (now in Ukraine) as Tsvi Tsera Tsertenko, Tzur immigrated to Mandatory Palestine at the age of two. He joined the Haganah – the prime Jewish paramilitary in Palestine -- at 14 during the riots of the Arab revolt (1936-39).  In the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Tzur was a battalion commander with the Givati Brigade. In that capacity he founded Givati’s jeep reconnaissance company, Samson's Foxes, which fought on the southern front. After the 1948 War, he stayed in the IDF and in 1953 was promoted to the rank of Major General. In 1956 he was appointed the commander of the Central Front and two years later he became deputy chief of staff. In January 1961, Tzur was named the IDF’s sixth chief of staff, a position he held for three years. It is believed that Prime Minister Ben Gurion appointed him to that position – passing over Major General Yitzhak Rabin – due in part to his support of the nuclear program (Rabin was known to be a critic of the nuclear project). For decades, in and out of government, Tzur remained engaged, in various roles, in overseeing the nuclear project. Tzur was a member of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission until the 1990s.   

After his military retirement in 1964, Tzur was the director-general of Mekorot, Israel's national water company. In 1965, he entered politics and was elected to the Knesset on the Rafi list, David Ben-Gurion's party, but he resigned after only a month, saying politics did not fit his temperament. He instead chose to return to his old managerial position at Mekorot.

Hours after Moshe Dayan’s dramatic appointment as Minister of Defense on June 1, 1967, he asked Tzur to join him as his top civilian chief at the ministry, practically serving as Dayan’s deputy. Tzur served in that position the entire time Dayan held the ministry, 1967-74. In that position, Tzur was the real leader of the nuclear project.   

After his departure from the Ministry of Defense in 1974, Tzur held several top managing positions, including at the Israeli Aircraft Industries and the shipping company Zim. Tzur was active in public affairs until his last days. He died in December 2004

Interview Notes

This interview is extracted from a larger interview for the oral history program of the Rabin Memorial Center in 2001.  The original interview was conducted in Hebrew.  Special thanks to Mr. Adam Raz, a NPIHP affiliate, who made this interview available for this collection.

The testimony of Tzvi “Chera” Tzur presented here is a short portion of a lengthy oral history interview he had done with Dr. Boaz Lev Tov for the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Center’s collection of oral testimonies in 2001. 

This portion of Tzur’s testimony deals with his involvement in Israel’s nuclear program.  Though Tzur had been in the Israeli nuclear program since his time as the Israeli Defense Force’s  (IDF) sixth chief of staff (1961-63), and subsequently when he was the director-general of Mekorot, Israel’s national water company, his real, executive involvement with the nuclear issue started on June 2 (or June 3), 1967, when he became chief aide to the newly installed minister of defense, Moshe Dayan.  In that capacity, Tzur assumed all the responsibilities held by Zevi Dinstein, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol’s deputy at the Ministry of Defense, including day-to-day oversight of the nuclear project on Dayan’s behalf. Tzur served in that role for the entire period Dayan was at the Ministry of Defense, 1967-74.

Tzur’s testimony has a number of flaws that should be kept in mind when reviewing this document. Tzur is restrained in what he discusses regarding Israel’s nuclear program. He even makes plain his disapproval of Yitzhak “Ya’tza” Yaacov’s openness on the subject. Additionally, the interview took place more than 30 years after the events.

Notwithstanding its flaws, Tzur’s testimony is important to this collection because it provides broad context to help understand and assess the crash nuclear activity that took place during the 1967 crisis.  From Tzur’s perspective, veiled and constrained as it is, this period should be characterized as a “checkup” on Israel’s technical capabilities at the time. It was a chance to explore what, if anything, could be practically done with those capabilities. 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.” While both Ya’tza and Tzur agree that crash nuclear activity was underway, Ya’tza presents it as a concrete contingency plan to demonstrate capability, while Tzur treats it as a technical and theoretical “checkup.”  Because Tzur is so restrained, it is difficult to tell how much of their disagreement is over fact or personal assessment.  Clearly Ya’tza, who was more directly involved in the operation, took it as more real.   

The other important feature of Tzur’s testimony is that it effectively confirms Ya’tzas’ key role as the man in charge of the military dimension in that activity.  Tzur confirms also that upon his arrival to the Ministry of Defense he appointed a two-man committee – Ya’tza and Israel Dostrovsky – to examine “if something [i.e., a test] can be done, but not to do it.”  In his testimony it appears that Tzur viewed the Israeli nuclear technical capability as very preliminary and rudimentary, implying he would not have recommended using it. Nor did he think it made sense politically for Israel to demonstrate its capability.