Did Israel's Acquisition of Nuclear Weapons Lead to 1967 War?

In Tuesday’s New York Sun, editor Seth Lipsky refers to the Six-Day war of 1967 in typical fashion, saying that Ariel Sharon “saved the Jewish state” by enveloping the Egyptians in the Sinai. Lipsky’s view of the war is unreconstructed chauvinism; it shows no familiarity with Israel’s new historians, who have described the ’67 war as a terrible accident brought on by saber-rattling militarists on both sides. Neither side really wanted war. The Israelis were more powerful than the Arab forces, and though Israel justly feared for its existence in the face of Arab rhetoric, Israel over-reacted to threats out of a “psychosis of annihilation,” writes former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami.

“Yitzhak Rabin intentionally led Israel into a war with Syria… Egypt was definitely not ready for war and Nasser did not want a war… In Israel the road to war was paved by a genuine existential fear, a legacy of the Ben-Gurion years, which always led to perceiving crises in apocalyptic terms and reacting only according to worst-case scenarios.” (From Ben-Ami’s book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace.)

The result of this war was a disaster: the Occupied Territories, which have destroyed Israel’s idealism.

That brings me to the bomb. If you read the history of this disastrous war, a natural question is whether Nasser massed his forces on the Sinai border, thereby provoking the Israelis, because he feared Israel’s nuclear ambitions. Why, just three years before, Nasser had told the U.S. that Israel’s developing the bomb “would be a cause for war, no matter how suicidal.”

It is generally thought that Israel got the technology from the French, in the late 50s, early 1960s. The countries shared an interest. The French were still trying to hold on to Algeria, and wanted to deflate the pan-Arab nationalism that was transforming the region, and that flowed from Nasser. The Israelis were also fearful of Nasser. Israeli leaders likened him to Hitler.

What did the U.S. do? We were against Israel getting the bomb. John Kennedy was angered by reports of what was happening at Dimona, the plant in the Negev where the nukes were being prepared, and insisted on inspections. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion lied to Kennedy about Israel’s intentions to evade the inspections. After Levi Eshkol succeeded Ben-Gurion in 1963, and LBJ succeeded JFK, Johnson hosted Eshkol at the White House—the first Israeli PM to come there&#151specifically because Eshkol had departed from Ben-Gurion’s “hyperactive nuclear policy in favour of a more conventional emphasis” (Ben-Ami says). Because of this calculated shift, Johnson committed the U.S. to Israel’s territorial integrity and gave it more arms.

The shift was rhetorical only. Israel went ahead with its nuclear plans, out of existential fears. What is the evidence that these plans prompted the ’67 war?

1. Three weeks before the war, on May 17, 1967, Egyptian MiGs overflew the nuclear reactor in Dimona.

“The incident touched on one of Israel’s darkest concerns, that its pursuit of nuclear power would impel Egypt to launch a conventional attack while it still had the chance,” American/Israeli thinktanker Michael Oren writes in his voluminous/numbing history of the war Six Days of War. “Back in 1964, Nasser had warned the Americans that Israel’s development of nuclear capabilities ‘would be a cause for war, no matter how suicidal.’ The U.S. assured Nasser that Israel was not developing strategic weapons, and he never renewed his threat, but the memory of it stuck with the Israelis. They never forgot the reactor’s proximity to the border, its vulnerability to aerial bombardment. Thus, though Nasser never once cited Dimona as a motive for his decisions in May, Israeli commanders assumed it was and concluded that they had to strike first. Israel’s fear for the reactor—rather than Egypt’s of it—was the greater catalyst for war.”

2. Israeli historian Benny Morris makes similar statements in his book, Righteous Victims:

“Throughout the [May] crisis Israeli decision-makers were worried by the possibility of an attack on the Dimona plant. In 1965 Nasser’s confidant, the journalist Muhammad Hassnin Heikal, had written that Arab experts believed Israel would go nuclear in three years time and that the Arab world would have to take preemptive action. In 1966 Nasser himself had declared that if Israel developed an atomic bomb, Egypt’s response would be a ‘preemptive war,’ directed in the first instance against the nuclear production facilities. On May 21, Eshkol had told the cabinet Defense Committees that Egypt wanted… ‘to bomb the reactor in Dimona.’

Morris says that just before the ’67 war, Israel had perfected a nuclear device. Following the Egyptian flyover on May 17, “the Egyptian command… briefly considered and planned a preemptive air offensive against Israeli targets—including the Dimona nuclear plant.”

A couple of comments:

One good thing to come out of Iran’s nuclear jousting is the removal of the hypocrisy surrounding Israel’s nuke capabilities. Israel has never acknowledged that it has the bomb, but in slips of the tongue during the Iran debate, a few officials have said as much. Israel’s nukes ought to be part of this discussion.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions represent a true global crisis. But the rhetoric and threats surrounding Iran’s plans recapitulate those of the ’60s case, and suggest that the answer is not militarism, but disarmament.

Seeing the effect that nukes had on Egypt in the mid-60s is a good reminder that all people fear nuclear devices, not just Israelis. Indeed, notwithstanding Iran’s president’s hateful rhetoric, the nuclear jousting should be considered not purely in ethnic and religious terms (neocons) but through the lens of realists: one regional superpower (Iran) versus another (Israel), duking it out for supremacy in the region The false promise that Ben-Gurion made to the U.S. in the 60s was that Israel would “not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.” Indeed, Israel armed itself with nukes in part because of rumors that the Egyptians were doing so. The U.S. failed to turn down the temperature in the region then. Maybe now’s our chance.