Just before the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel prepared a nuclear device to be detonated on a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula as a show of force in the event that it found itself losing the war, a former IDF general told Yedioth Ahronoth journalist Dr. Ronen Bergman.
Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Yaakov, who was behind the secret plan codenamed Operation Samson, first divulged it 16 years ago in a series of conversations held between 1999 and 2001 with Dr. Bergman as well as nuclear policy researcher Dr. Avner Cohen for a March 2011 article.
The interview, which in addition to the paper exposé was also set to be made into a documentary film, was barred from publication by the IDF censor.
Yaakov was later arrested on suspicion of endangering national security by exposing Israel's atomic secrets to Dr. Bergman and was accused of "aggravated espionage," but was later cleared of the severe charges and convicted of a lesser offense for providing information to unauthorized individuals. Dr. Bergman was also questioned on the matter.
Transcripts of Brig. Gen. Yaakov's conversations with Dr. Bergman and Dr. Cohen were obtained by the New York Times. The Times, which is not bound by the Israeli censor, revealed the secret plan.
According to Yaakov, two helicopters were to be flown to the heart of the Sinai desert, where they were to plant a nuclear device in one of the wadis. At the time, Israel did not yet have other measures like bombs or missiles to carry the nuclear payload.
Israel was then to set off the nuclear explosion. This demonstration of strength would have come with a warning to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser: end the war or another nuclear explosion would target a population center.
"You have an enemy, and he says that he is going to throw you into the sea, so you believe him. How can you stop him? You scare him," Yaakov told Dr. Bergman and Dr. Cohen. "If you have something that can frighten him, you use it. The goal was to create a new situation on the ground, one that would force the large powers to intervene or force the Egyptians to stop and say 'wait, we didn't prepare for this.'"
Yaakov, one of the founders of the IDF's weapons development program, told Dr. Bergman and Dr. Cohen that in May 1967, when tension with Egypt had skyrocketed after the decision to close the Straits of Tiran, he was in California on a training mission before being immediately recalled to Israel.
"It was clear that war was near," said Yaakov, who claimed he initiated and promoted a plan to detonate a nuclear device in the eastern Sinai desert. The site chosen for the explosion was a mountain top some 12km away from an Egyptian base at Abu Ageila.
The plan had been to send a small paratrooper force to distract the Egyptian army, while a crew could prepare the atomic explosion. Two helicopters were to ferry the device and technicians to the site. If it had exploded, the mushroom cloud would have been visible throughout the entire Sinai and Negev and perhaps even in Cairo.
In the recorded interview, Yaakov can be heard saying that he was afraid him and his staff were afraid they wouldn't survive the blast. Nevertheless, Yaakov believed Israel should have conducted the explosion anyway, even after winning the war within six days.
Should the explosion have actually happened, it would have been the first nuclear blast for military purposes since the United States dropped two atom bombs on Japan to force their surrender.
Similarly, the Americans originally planned something similar to what the Israelis had devised; detonating a nuclear device near Japan to frighten them into surrendering. However, the US eventually abandoned the idea after concluding it would not have been enough to end the war.
Dr. Ronen Bergman, a senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs at Yedioth Ahronoth and a contributing writer for the New York Times, is the author of the forthcoming Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel's Targeted Assassinations.
(Translated and edited by Fred Goldberg)