‘Dayan pushed PM Meir to consider using nuclear weapons in 1973 war’

Former government aide says the defense minister, badly shaken on day two of the Yom Kippur War, suggested the ultimate option… and Meir told him to ‘forget it’

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan meet with troops on the Golan Heights, on November 21, 1973. (Ron Frenkel/GPO)
Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan meet with troops on the Golan Heights, on November 21, 1973. (Ron Frenkel/GPO)

On the second day of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s defense minister Moshe Dayan told prime minister Golda Meir to consider making preparations for the use of nuclear weapons, according to an interview with a ministerial aide now being published for the first time.

With Israel taken completely by surprise, Syrian tanks streaking across the Golan Heights and the IDF’s armored divisions in the south losing ground, Dayan returned from the northern front for a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office visibly shaken, and suggested readying the nuclear option, claims Arnon Azaryahu, an aide to another minister in the war-time security cabinet, Israel Galili, in the video-and-text interview.

The interview, which was conducted several years ago by nuclear historian Avner Cohen, was formally made public late Thursday on the website of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. It is emerging 40 years after the Yom Kippur War — and precisely as the world focuses attention on Iran’s rogue nuclear program, which Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly this week is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Iran has tried to deflect international scrutiny of its nuclear program by pointing at what Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently claimed were Israel’s “200 nuclear warheads.”

In Arnon Azaryahu’s account, the war-time security cabinet, consisting of Galili, prime minister Meir, defense minister Dayan and deputy prime minister Yigal Allon, held an especially lengthy meeting on October 7, 1973.

(The full length interview can be found here.)

Galili’s aide Azaryahu was not in the room, and thus the account he provides in the interview is second-hand. He sat on a bench in the hall outside, several yards away from a stone-faced friend of his – Shalhevet Freir, the director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission.

A photo from the 1960s of the nuclear facility outside Dimona (photo credit: Flash 90/US National Security Archive)
A photo from the 1960s of the nuclear facility outside Dimona (photo credit: Flash 90/US National Security Archive)

Over lunch later that day, Galili revealed to Azaryahu what had unfolded inside. Recounting what he says Galili told him, Azaryahu says in the interview that Dayan waited until after chief of the IDF General Staff Lt. Gen. David “Dado” Elazar had made a presentation outlining the state of the war and had left the room. Then, with his hand on the door handle, in an attempt at nonchalance, Dayan raised the nuclear matter:

Moshe Dayan, June 1981. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Moshe Dayan, June 1981. (photo credit: Moshe Shai/Flash90)

“Dayan goes over to the door, holds on to the handle, ready to turn it, and says, Yes, I forgot the main thing. I thought that since the situation, which we just heard of for half-an-hour from Dado, that since the situation is very bad, it would be worthwhile, since we don’t have a lot of time and a lot of options, that we prepare to show the nuclear option.”

“Therefore,” Dayan continued, according to the account Azaryahu says Galili gave him, “so that we don’t lose time, I’ve decided, even before coming here, to invite Shalhevet Freir. He’s waiting outside. If you authorize for him to make the necessary preparations, so that if we decide to operate then we can operate in a matter of minutes, and not so that we then spend half a day trying to get all of the preparations for the matter [ready]; it’s possible that time will be of the essence.”

Dayan, says Azaryahu, had deliberately “waited for Dado to go, [and] tried to lend the whole matter a sense of un-importance.”

Israel Galili (photo credit: Wikipedia commons)
Israel Galili (photo credit: Wikipedia commons)

Galili and Allon, Meir’s closest advisers, determinedly batted the nuclear idea away, Azaryahu says, shouting that, “We shouldn’t panic…”

And Meir, indeed told Dayan — who “kept his hand on the door handle the entire time, as though this were a sort of conversation between friends” — to forget about the idea.

Dayan replied, “OK, if that’s what you say, I accept [it]. I’m going.”

But Galili was apparently worried that Dayan might not heed Meir’s instruction. Galili, says Azaryahu, “told me later, I was scared that he wouldn’t tell him [Freir] not to make nuclear preparations]. So I went back in and I told [Meir’s military attaché, Brig. Gen. Israel] Lior, listen, Moshe Dayan is capable of forgetting to tell [Freir] not to do it. Call [Freir in], and have Golda tell him in simple Hebrew to forget it.”

Galili stayed put, Azaryahu said, until Lior indeed summoned Freir, “because Moshe Dayan could forget to tell him that for the time being we don’t want it.”

Israel has never confirmed having nuclear weapons, maintaining a policy of nuclear ambiguity.

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