How close did Israel come to nuclear war in 1973?

Avner Cohen writes: week is the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, perhaps the most traumatic moment in Israel’s history. On Oct. 7, 1973 — the second day of the war — Israel’s borders along the Suez Canal in the south and the Golan Heights in the north collapsed under a massive assault by a coalition of Arab armies. Israel was caught unprepared.

The previous morning, Oct. 6, Moshe Dayan, Israel’s defense minister and a hero of the 1967 Six-Day War, had been so confident of Israel’s security that he’d opposed mobilizing the entirety of the reserve force, despite intelligence reports indicating that an Arab military offensive was imminent.

Just one day later, after visiting the front lines, Mr. Dayan was transformed into a prophet of doom. In a well-documented episode, he warned his generals of the demise of the “Third Temple,” a reference to the modern state of Israel. Mr. Dayan believed the country was fighting for its survival, and his mind turned to options of last resort. Israel’s nuclear arsenal, which first came into being on the eve of the 1967 war, had by 1973 grown to 10 or 20 atomic weapons. It was Israel’s ultimate insurance policy at a time of existential threat.

In the four decades since the 1973 war, rumors have blossomed that Israel stood at the nuclear brink during that war’s darkest hours. A number of journalists and scholars have asserted that during a dramatic meeting in one of the war’s early days, a panic-stricken Mr. Dayan persuaded the Israeli war cabinet, including the prime minister, Golda Meir, to arm the country’s weapons with warheads for possible use.

Some analysts have even claimed that Israel used this “nuclear alert” to blackmail the Nixon administration into providing Israel with a huge airlift of military supplies. Although these stories were based on anonymous sourcing and circumstantial evidence, they have become a central part of the lore surrounding the Yom Kippur War. Even my own early scholarship was to some degree influenced by this mythology. But in a January 2008 interview I conducted, Arnan Azaryahu, a senior aide to an Israeli cabinet minister at the time of the war, negated and refuted the nearly four-decade-old mythology alleging that Israel almost reached the nuclear brink in 1973. [Continue reading…]

See more interviews at The Avner Cohen Collection.

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