JERUSALEM – Research suggesting Israel may have considered detonating an atomic device on the eve of the Six-Day War 50 years ago to deter its Arab neighbors sparked debate and denials Monday.
Israel’s presumed status as the Middle East’s sole nuclear-armed nation remains a highly taboo subject for the country, which neither confirms nor denies such capability.
The foreign ministry declined to comment, but one minister who has also written a book on the Six-Day War dismissed the claim.
Research by Avner Cohen, a historian who specializes in Israel’s nuclear program, sparked the debate coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, fought from June 5 to 10, 1967.
The research was published on Monday on the website of the U.S.-based Wilson Center think tank, whose work includes tracking nuclear proliferation.
Findings were also published over the weekend in the New York Times.
Cohen’s research includes interviews with Yitzhak Yaakov, a retired Israeli brigadier general who had been head of weapons research and development.
Yaakov, who died in 2013, told Cohen that in 1967 he came up with a plan called “Samson” or “Shimshon” in Hebrew that would involve detonating an “improvised” atomic device purely as a warning.
Yaakov stressed that Israel had not yet developed a nuclear bomb.
The plan called for it to be detonated atop a mountain in the eastern Sinai Peninsula some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Abu Ageila Egyptian strategic military complex.
Cohen wrote that “a small paratroop force would have diverted the attention of the Egyptian army in the area to allow the team to prepare the nuclear demonstration upon an order from both the prime minister and the chief of staff.”
The blast would have been seen “for many tens (of) kilometers throughout the Sinai and the Negev” desert, he wrote.
Israel in fact shocked the world with its lightning victory over Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the Six-Day War, greatly expanding its territory with global implications.
The nuclear claims led to debate in Israel, where Michael Oren, a deputy minister, parliament member and Six-Day War historian said they “did not hold water.”
He said that “tens, even hundreds, of thousands of documents recently declassified on the Six-Day War… do not contain even a half a hint” of the claims.
Cohen also expressed skepticism over whether the plan described by Yaakov was being seriously considered.
“I ultimately agree . . . that on the eve of the 1967 war, Israel’s leadership was not seriously considering conducting — or even capable of conducting — a nuclear demonstration,” he wrote.
“Yet (Yaakov’s) testimony does reveal — and for the first time from an identifiable source — that Israel had the capability to improvise a nuclear explosive device in June 1967.”