New Research Examines the Nuclear Dimensions of the 1967 Middle East War

May 1, 2019

The Nonproliferation Review released today a new special section that examines three major unresolved questions about the nuclear dimensions of the Middle East war of June 1967 (also known as the Six-Day War). The special section features three scholarly articles and two edited primary source materials.

How close was Israel to possessing nuclear weapons in the 1967 war? In what manner and circumstances might Israel have detonated a nuclear device? Avner Cohen of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey addresses both Israeli concerns of an Egyptian aerial attack on Dimona and Israel’s own rushed effort to create an operational nuclear option during the crisis of May 1967. While acknowledging that much is still uncertain, Cohen argues that there is persuasive evidence—including newly available sources—that Israel sought to hastily assemble one or two nuclear devices and drew a preliminary contingency plan for demonstrating them.

Was Israel’s nuclear facility a target of Egyptian war planning? In the late 1990s, Israeli researchers showed that the vulnerability of Israel’s nuclear facility at Dimona to Egyptian air power played a significant role in the thinking of Israel’s military and political leaders during the pre-war crisis of May and early June. But did Egypt’s leaders actually have designs on Dimona, and how did their thinking about Dimona change over the course of the crisis? Drawing mostly on Egyptian sources, Hassan Elbahtimy of King’s College London sheds new light on these questions, suggesting that Dimona played only an incidental role in Egypt’s political and military plans. The contrast between Egyptian and Israeli perceptions of events as they unfolded was profound.

What and how much did Washington know of Israel’s nuclear capability? Did the US government know or suspect that Israel had an underground reprocessing plant adjacent to the Dimona reactor, enabling it to separate plutonium and build nuclear devices? After studying the available record, William Burr of George Washington University’s National Security Archive concludes that while some intelligence officials suspected that Israel already had the ability to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, hard evidence was lacking. American policy makers were in the dark about Israel’s crash efforts to prepare an initial, rudimentary nuclear capability.

Eyewitness Historical Testimonies. The special includes two interviews/testimonies that Avner Cohen conducted with two Israelis: retired Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Brig. Gen. Yitzhak (Ya’tza) Yaakov, who was responsible for drafting Israel’s nuclear contingency plan during the crisis, and Illinois Institute of Technology Emeritus Professor Elie Geisler, who was in charge of monitoring the plutonium core of an Israeli nuclear device. Geisler’s testimony describes a tense encounter with Yaakov—sent to take command of the compound that housed the core—in the days before the outbreak of the war.

The Nonproliferation Review is the world’s only peer-reviewed journal focused on the causes and consequences of the spread of weapons of mass destruction and their effect on strategic stability. It is a project of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and is published by Taylor & Francis.

For more information, contact:

Professor Avner Cohen
[email protected]
(t) +1 (831) 647-6437
(m) +1 (202) 489-6282

Joshua H. Pollack, Editor of The Nonproliferation Review
[email protected]
(t) +1 (202) 601.2343

Comments Are Closed