A government deputy minister and historian on Sunday dismissed a media report claiming Israel was prepared to detonate an atom bomb to deter invading Arab armies as a “doomsday” plan during the 1967 Six Day War.
Deputy Minister at the Prime Minister’s Office Michael Oren, author of an acclaimed history on the Six Day War, said in a statement that thousands of declassified documents from the war lend no support to the purported last-ditch plan to drop a nuclear bomb in Sinai, as reported by The New York Times on Saturday.
The NY Times report was based on an interview conducted by leading Israeli nuclear scholar Avner Cohen with retired IDF brigadier general Itzhak Yaakov, who allegedly oversaw the plan.
Kulanu party lawmaker Oren, a former ambassador to the US who is in charge of public diplomacy, pointed out that Cohen had based his report on just one source.
“Among serious researchers, that is something unacceptable,” Oren said.
“I also interviewed Yitzhak Yaakov, and I was not convinced that the story holds water,” he continued. “They released tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of classified documents from the Six Day War, the government discussions of our defense establishment and foreign intelligence organizations, and there is not even half a hint that supports Avner Cohen’s version. If there was something there, we would find more evidence.”
The full interview with Yaakov is set to be published Monday, as Israel marks the 50th anniversary of the war in which it defeated several Arab armies in just six days.
According to Yaakov, who oversaw weapons development for the Israel military and gave details of the plan to Cohen in 1999 and 2000 interviews, Israel was deeply fearful ahead of the war.
“You’ve got an enemy, and he says he’s going to throw you into the sea,” Yaakov said. “You believe him.”
“How can you stop him? You scare him. If you’ve got something you can scare him with, you scare him.”
Yaakov, who died in 2013 at age 87, detailed in the interview with Cohen how Israel developed a plan code-named “Shimshon,” or Samson, to have helicopters and commandos fly an atomic device to a mountaintop site about 12 miles from an Egyptian military complex at Abu Ageila.
Israel has never acknowledged having nuclear weapons, maintaining a policy of so-called nuclear ambiguity, neither publicly confirming nor denying the existence of an atomic arsenal. However, several top US officials have seemed to confirm it, most recently former secretary of state Colin Powell who wrote in a leaked private email that he believed Israel has some 200 nuclear weapons.
The Israeli Embassy in Washington declined to comment on the report or on Yaakov’s role, The New York Times said.
If Israel had detonated a device, it would have been the first use of a nuclear weapon in a war situation since the US dropped the two bombs on Japan to end World War II.
On Monday, the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington — where Cohen is a fellow — is to release on a special website a series of documents related to the Israeli atomic plan.
As it turned out, Israel’s victory was swift and decisive and there was no need for any doomsday plan, but Yaakov still believed Israel should have gone ahead with it and openly declared its nuclear prowess.
“I still think to this day that we should have done it,” he told Cohen, who is the author of “Israel and the Bomb” and “The Worst-Kept Secret.”
In 2001, some 2 years after his conversations with Cohen, Yaakov was arrested in Israel and charged with passing secret information with intent to harm state security. The charges related to memoirs he wrote, the Haaretz daily reported in its obituary of Yaakov in 2013.
Yaakov was acquitted of the main charge but found guilty of the unauthorized handing over of secret information, Haaretz said, noting that he received a two-year suspended sentence.
The obituary hinted at the exploits in the Sinai Desert, saying that “Yaakov was one of Israel’s leading officers in the field of weapons development during the build-up to the Six Day War and afterwards. During the war he was appointed to command a complex and unprecedented operation in the Sinai Peninsula, where he was to command both IAF pilots and a special ops unit. The IDF’s rapid success in defeating the Egyptian army made the operation redundant and it was cancelled.”
According to Cohen, he promised Yaakov he would find the right time to publish the information and now, on the 50th anniversary, he believed the time was ripe.
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.