Next 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. (A video of a three-minute segment from the interview with subtitles can be viewed here. Though I have had the video for five years, I chose not to release it until after Mr. Azaryahu’s death in 2008.)
Mr. Azaryahu’s testimony, released now for the first time, sheds new light on a critical moment in the history of the Yom Kippur War and of the nuclear age. Although he was never a policy maker, Mr. Azaryahu was a senior political insider. As a trusted aide and confidant to Yisrael Galili, a minister without portfolio and Ms. Meir’s closest political ally, Mr. Azaryahu was privy to some of Israel’s most fateful decisions. In the early afternoon of Oct. 7, as a fierce battle with Syrian forces raged and the Israeli Army appeared to be losing its grasp on the Golan Heights, Mr. Azaryahu was waiting for his boss, Mr. Galili, outside the prime minister’s office in Tel Aviv, where a small group of ministers had hastily convened to discuss the desperate military situation. Shalheveth Freier, then the director general of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, suddenly arrived and uneasily took a seat several benches away from Mr. Azaryahu outside of the office. The two had known each other for years, but Mr. Freier’s silence and body language suggested he was deeply uncomfortable.
Then, as the meeting adjourned, Mr. Dayan, casually leaning against the door and talking as if he were raising only a minor point, asked the prime minister to authorize Mr. Freier to initiate the necessary preparations for a “demonstration option” — that is, a demonstration of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability.
According to Mr. Azaryahu’s account, Mr. Dayan gave the impression that he’d already authorized such a demonstration and all that was needed was Ms. Meir’s approval. Mr. Dayan explained that an immediate authorization of preparatory steps for a nuclear blast would save precious time and allow the order to detonate a bomb to be executed rapidly should the need arise. At that point, Mr. Azaryahu told me, Mr. Galili and the deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon, spoke up to oppose Mr. Dayan’s plan, saying it was premature to consider the nuclear option and that Israel would prevail using conventional weapons.
Siding with her two senior ministers, the prime minister told Mr. Dayan to “forget it.” He responded by saying that he remained unconvinced but that he respected the prime minister’s decision. He then left the room.
Mr. Azaryahu’s testimony is the first and only credible Israeli eyewitness account to date of the nuclear dimension of the Yom Kippur War. This secrecy is because of Israel’s code of silence on all nuclear matters. Given the institutional censorship around this issue, it’s not surprising that this episode was not publicly known until now. Indeed, this article could not have been written about openly in the Israeli media until first published by “foreign sources” like this newspaper and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, to which I have donated my collection of documents and video footage.
Although the Azaryahu interview leaves many questions unanswered, it challenges the popular and misguided narrative that the Israeli government, influenced by Mr. Dayan’s gloom, was on the verge of using nuclear weapons in October 1973. Moreover, Mr. Azaryahu’s testimony reveals that Israel’s leadership, with the notable exception of Mr. Dayan, recognized the danger of the nuclear brink and wisely refused to approach it. In that meeting, Israel’s leaders, especially Ms. Meir, demonstrated remarkable restraint at a time when the country’s survival hung in the balance.
Avner Cohen, a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, is the author of Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb.