The Six-Day War (1967) Revisited: The Nuclear Dimension
Dr. Avner Cohen, Professor, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, and author of numerous publications related to Israel’s nuclear opacity policy, including “The state of knowledge: What we know, what we think we know, and what we don’t know about the nuclear dimension of the 1967 War,” posits that an important and understated element of the 1967 Six-Day War was Israel’s suspected nuclear status at Dimona. Significantly, the War changed the course of history, the political landscape of the Middle East, and sent a signal about Israel’s capabilities.
From the Israeli perspective, the Dimona nuclear site was the primary reason for the crisis. Cohen describes this as the “nuclear dimension” because Israel knew that the existence of Dimona, the site of its “secret” nuclear weapons facility, would prompt Egypt to declare war. To that end, Dimona secured Israel’s existence in the region and its nuclear facility had to be be protected at all costs. As a result, Israel was prepared for a preemptive strike.
Shrouded in secrecy, the nuclear proliferation at Dimona thrived. In effect, the covert nature of the program made Egyptian President Abdel Nasser concerned about Israel’s potential dominance in the region. Israel had the foresight to know that keeping an element of secrecy surrounding the nuclear program would be essential to its success. If Israel were to declare its nuclear weapons, then the international community would have tried to impede the progress of its program and subject it to IAEA safeguards. It also would have also emboldened Nasser to be to launch a preemptive strike and vindicated his suspicions. Consequently, the suspicions about Dimona prompted Nasser to threaten war and position the Egyption military to strike.
Nasser was interested in gaining prestige in the region and becoming the dominant power in the Middle East. Dr. Cohen argued that by using deterrence mechanisms such as flying over Dimona with military aircraft and giving speeches that made war seem imminent, he was able to boost his popularity in the Arab world. Since Israel was not accepted in the region, Nasser’s “strong leader persana” provided hope that he could liberate the Palestinian people. However, his double-talk on whether war was in Egypt’s future, in addition to administrative dissention, resulted in poor planning and unpreparedness in the event of conflict.
Dr. Hassan Elbahtimy, Teaching Fellow, King’s College London, presented his lecture entitled, “Egypt, Dimona and the origins of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.” He contended the effects of the Arab Israeli war are still felt today in that Israel gained dominance in the region and successfully developed nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, there are also two different narratives in studying this war: the Israeli narrative and the Egyptian narrative. Contrary to Dr. Cohen’s assertion that Dimona was the root of the crisis, Dr. Elbahtimy explained that there were other factors involved that pressed Egypt to consider war.
On the Egyption side, there was strong interest in Israel’s intentions and progress in developing nuclear weapons. Nasser employed the use of his country's best intelligence agencies to investigate Israel’s elusive nuclear program. It was difficult to determine the nature of the program due to Israel remaining “tight lipped” about the activities and efficiently concealing key physical indicators that would associate Dimona with a nuclear facility. Under those circumstances, Egypt was skeptical that Israel could cross the nuclear threshold. However, Dr. Elbahtimy elaborated that as a result of Israel’s suspected nuclear activity, Nasser developed a rudimentary Egyptian nuclear research program sponsored by the Soviets.
To counter Dr. Cohen’s claim, Dr. Elbahtimy asserted that Nasser was primarily concerned about the threat of a preemptive strike, the existence of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, and the Palestinian question. Nasser did not want nuclear weapons in the Arab world. There was also major concern over Israel shooting Syria’s fighter jets and other acts of aggression. Coupled with the possibility of a non-Arab country having a nuclear deterrent, it was in Egypt’s best interest to consider a preemptive strike. Unfortunately, they were disorganized in their preparation, which resulted in an embarrassing catastrophe that negatively impacted Nasser’s legacy.
Egyptian officials cited no interest in attacking Israel over the existence of Dimona. Though they were concerned about it, but it was not a decisive factor in the crisis. Nasser was primarily worried about not provoking Israel. When he discovered that they were conducting flight operations over Dimona, he immediately stopped it. Further, dissension and personality conflicts were a major issue in Egypt’s preparation for potential conflict. Between sending mixed messages internally if war was going happen, and Nasser being unsure about Israel’s military capabilities, they were doomed for failure.
Dr. William Burr, Senior Analyst, at the National Security Archive, presented a lecture titled, “What Washington did and did not know about Israeli nuclear capabilities at the time of the Six-Day War.” He described how the U.S. was concerned about Israel developing nuclear weapons, while at the same time passively allowed them to proliferate. There was speculation that Israel was stockpiling untested weapons, but the U.S. was unsure how far Israel was from crossing the nuclear threshold. It appeared the U.S. wanted to keep the Middle East nuclear weapon free, but when suspicions about Israel arose, we did not use all mechanisms to restrain them. Nevertheless, Dr. Burr proclaimed the U.S. took minimal measures to investigate Israeli proliferation activity, due to them sharing limited and false information about it. Despite reports of Israel’s purchase of “yellow cake” from Argentina, Israel insisted that their program was for peaceful use.
In an effort to confirm the Israelis were telling the truth, the U.S. periodically sent inspectors to Dimona. After each inspection, they determined the program met the qualifications for peaceful use, even though Israel only permitted them to inspect certain parts of the facility. What they did not know was that they reconfigured the facility to conceal its true intentions. In hindsight, the scientists were gullible in their inspections. Because if they had been thorough and pressed Israel, they would have insisted on inspecting the entire facility and used the necessary tools that would have detected SNM (Special Nuclear Materials). Dr. Burr alludes to it being assumed the U.S. turned a blind eye to the activity at Dimona. The U.S. learned the Dimona facility had been expanded, shortly before the War. Consequently, after Israel won, the U.S. unofficially recognized them as a nuclear power in the region and Israel adopted a policy of opacity towards its nuclear weapons program.