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The story behind Israel’s atomic explosion plan

For many years, Israel tried to prevent Brig. Gen. Yitzhak Yaakov from revealing the story of the 1967 plans to detonate an explosive device in the Sinai Peninsula.
A convoy of Israeli armoured military vehicles rolls through the Sinai peninsula during the 1967 Middle East War, widely known as the Six Day War, in this picture released on June 4, 2007 by Israel's Defence Ministry. Forty years ago this week, Israel swept to victory in six days in a war with Egypt, Syria and Jordan, capturing the Sinai peninsula, Golan Heights, Gaza Strip and West Bank, including Arab East Jerusalem. REUTERS/Israeli Defence Ministry/Handout BLACK AND WHITE ONLY.  EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT F

In discussing Israel's nuclear capabilities, even foreign publications have not gone back to 1967, to the war that transformed Israel from a state under siege and faced with annihilation into a regional empire. The international community now believes that Israel has 90-200 nuclear warheads. According to foreign researchers, some are installed on Jericho missiles, while others can be delivered by fighter jet. A few may even be carried by German-manufactured submarines. Nevertheless, no one had imagined that the story of Israel's atomic arsenal began as early as it did. Israel's nuclear option, once called the Samson option, was not even thought to have existed on the eve of the war that broke out in June 1967. As it turns out, however, it did, at least according to The New York Times.

In the early 2000s, Israel invested significant energy and no small amount of money in an effort to collect and destroy the drafts and manuscripts of personal diary entries and an ostensibly fictional memoir by Brig. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak “Yatza” Yaakov that he had sent to several friends, publishers and members of the American news media. It now looks like Yaakov's writings included one of the most secretive and explosive stories in the history of Israel's defense establishment.

Yaakov stood at the center of the story, which was never published. Given the effort Israel exerted, it looks like the state did everything it could to keep it that way. Nevertheless, Israel's defense establishment and press spent years dealing with the “Yatza Affair,” until Yaakov's death slightly more than four years ago, in March 2013.

In 2001, Yaakov arrived in Israel from the United States to celebrate his 75th birthday and was promptly arrested. Accused of espionage, his trial was held in camera. Yaakov was eventually convicted of lesser crimes, handed a two-year conditional sentence and released from house arrest. The story he wanted to tell was censored, and a strict publication ban was imposed on it until this week. Now that Yaakov is dead, however, his supposed secrets have emerged from the shadows, published June 3 by The New York Times. The paper obtained the transcript of an interview that Yaakov had given to Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman.

On the eve of the Six-Day War, which broke out fifty years ago today, Israel faced a real existential threat. It was a tiny state with only 10 air miles between the seaside town of Netanya and its eastern border. It had indefensible boundaries and was surrounded by enemies whose armies had amassed along its borders. The population was much smaller then, some 2.7 million people, and the predominant feeling among the country's leaders was that they were facing a second Holocaust. While the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) deployed along the borders to counter any problems, the political leadership was reluctant to act. It feared that a pre-emptive strike by Israel would lead to international isolation and wake the slumbering Soviet Union, which was consistently providing aid to the Arab states.

According to the report in The New York Times, this was the background to a decision by the Israeli General Staff to draw up a desperate plan for the worst-case scenario: Israel would detonate a nuclear device on the summit of a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula. The bomb would be hidden at the site by a special paratrooper unit. According to foreign sources, Israel's nuclear program was in its infancy at that time. Those same sources claimed that although Israel had the capability to detonate a nuclear device, it still lacked the means to deliver it.

According to the top-secret plan, the Egyptians would in theory see the explosion from a great distance, perhaps even from Cairo, and get the hint. One theory has it that the plan was made in response to concerns that in case of a war, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser would use chemical weapons against Israel, just as he had used them during Egypt's military intervention in Yemen. Israeli leaders were not only concerned about a military defeat and annihilation, but also about the possibility that Egyptian missiles armed with chemical warheads would land in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Haifa. In response to this potential apocalypse, Israel prepared an apocalypse of its own.

The plan was never carried out, nor was it even close to becoming a reality. The Six-Day War broke out on June 5. Within the first two hours, the Israeli air force had destroyed the Arab air forces in Operation Focus, and everyone knew that Israel would win. The story of the plan was never revealed, apparently because it was censored or out of concern that it might harm Israel’s credibility as a responsible state. Then along came Yaakov, who had headed the unit that prepared the operation for the bomb during the war.

Yaakov led the Weapons Development Unit in the IDF's Operations Division and then served as the head of the Research and Development Unit at the Ministry of Defense. Foreign reports claim that Yaakov was one of the founders of Israel's nuclear program.

Once he reached the age of 70, Yaakov sought ways to ensure that his contributions to Israel's security would be remembered for posterity. He wrote a book, supposedly a work of fiction, in which he described, among other things, the secret 1967 operation. He sent the manuscript to various publishers, friends and public figures in the United States, along with a personal note in which he explained that it was a completely true story, but written as a fictional account to bypass Israeli censorship. He followed up by sending excerpts from his personal diary, describing this secret plan, to others in the United States. Yaakov was occasionally cautioned against doing this by Israeli authorities, but he chose to ignore their warnings.

The climax came when he gave a long, detailed interview to Bergman in which he described the events that appeared in The New York Times story. At that time, the interview was censored in full. Digital copies — the interview was also filmed for television broadcasting — were collected and destroyed. Israel invested a lot of energy, quite a bit of money and serious effort in dealing with the manuscripts, books and journals, which had been disseminated across the United States. Yaakov was arrested, imprisoned, convicted and released.

This week seems to have brought the roundup and concealment to an end. Transcripts of Bergman's interview with Yaakov reached The New York Times and were published, but the sky did not fall. No one was too upset about it either, even in Israel. In the current age of fake news and seemingly fabricated scandalous events that actually did happen, no one is about to lose their mind over dusty old accounts of things that did not happen five decades ago. Israel has never revealed whether it has nuclear weapons, but its neighbors certainly act as if it does, and as if they are intimately familiar with Israel's nuclear capacity. This whole incident proves that time can change a story's significance.