Arab legion positions are seen under fire to clear way for Israeli units to takeover the hills surrounding the Jerusalem's Old City during the 1967 Middle East War, in this Government Press Office handout photo, taken June 6, 1967. Image Credit: REUTERS

NEW YORK: On the eve of the 1967, 50 years ago this week, Israeli officials raced to assemble an atomic device and developed a plan to detonate it atop a mountain in the Sinai Peninsula as a warning to Egyptian and other Arab forces, according to an interview with a key organiser of the effort that will be published Monday.

The secret contingency plan, called a “doomsday operation” by Itzhak Yaakov, the retired brigadier general who described it in the interview, would have been invoked if Israel feared it was going to lose the 1967 conflict. The demonstration blast, Israeli officials believed, would intimidate Egypt and surrounding Arab states — Syria, Iraq and Jordan — into backing off.

Israel won the war so quickly that the atomic device was never moved to Sinai. But Yaakov’s account, which sheds new light on a clash that shaped the contours of the modern Middle East conflict, reveals Israel’s early consideration of how it might use its nuclear arsenal to preserve itself.

Israel has never acknowledged the existence of its nuclear arsenal, in an effort to preserve “nuclear ambiguity” and forestall periodic calls for a nuclear-free Middle East. In 2001, Yaakov was arrested, at age 75, on charges that he had imperilled the country’s security by talking about the nuclear programme to an Israeli reporter, Ronen Bergman, whose work was censored. At various moments, US officials, including former President Jimmy Carter long after he left office, have acknowledged the existence of the Israeli programme, though they have never given details.

A spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington said the Israeli government would not comment on Yaakov’s role.

If the Israeli leadership had detonated the atomic device, it would have been the first nuclear explosion used for military purposes since the United States’ attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki 22 years earlier.

The plan had a precedent: The United States considered the same thing during the Manhattan Project, as the programme’s scientists hotly debated whether to set off a blast near Japan in an effort to scare Emperor Hirohito into a quick surrender. The military vetoed the idea, convinced that it would not be enough to end the war.

According to Yaakov, the Israeli plan was code-named Shimshon, or Samson, after the biblical hero of immense strength. Israel’s nuclear deterrence strategy has long been called the “Samson option” because Samson, according to the Bible, brought down the roof of a Philistine temple, killing his enemies and himself.

Yaakov said he feared that if Israel, as a last resort, went ahead with the demonstration nuclear blast in Egyptian territory, it could have killed him and his commando team.

Cohen, a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California and the author of ‘Israel and the Bomb’ and ‘The Worst-Kept Secret’, described the idea behind the atomic demonstration as giving “the prime minister an ultimate option if everything else failed.”

Cohen, who was born in Israel and educated in part in the United States, has pushed the frontiers of public discourse on a fiercely hidden subject: how Israel became an unacknowledged nuclear power in the 1960s.

On Monday, the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars in Washington — where Cohen is a global fellow — is releasing on a special website a series of documents related to the atomic plan. The project maintains a digital archive of his work known as the Avner Cohen Collection. Cohen said he struck up a relationship with Yaakov after he published “Israel and the Bomb” in 1998. He interviewed Yaakov for hours in summer and fall 1999 and in early 2000, always in Hebrew and mainly in midtown Manhattan, where the former general lived.

Those interviews paint a picture of Israel’s recognition in the early 1960s that it needed a crash programme to get the bomb. In 1963, Yaakov, a freshly minted colonel with engineering degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and from Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, became the senior liaison officer between the Israel Defence Forces and the country’s civilian defence units, including the project to make an atomic bomb.

As Yaakov recounted the story, in May 1967, as tensions rose with Egypt over its decision to close the Straits of Tiran between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Red Sea, he was half a world away, visiting the RAND Corp. in California. He was suddenly summoned back to Israel. With it clear that war was imminent, Yaakov said, he initiated, drafted and promoted a plan aimed at detonating a nuclear device in the sparsely populated Eastern Sinai Desert in a display of force.

The site chosen for the proposed explosion was a mountaintop about 19km from an Egyptian military complex at Abu Ageila, a critical crossroads where, on June 5, Ariel Sharon commanded Israeli troops in a battle against the Egyptians. (Sharon later became prime minister, and died in 2014.)

The plan, if activated by order of the prime minister and military chief of staff, was to send a small paratrooper force to divert the Egyptian army in the desert area so that a team could lay preparations for the atomic blast. Two large helicopters were to land, deliver the nuclear device, and then create a command post in a mountain creek or canyon. If the order came to detonate, the blinding flash and mushroom cloud would have been seen throughout the Sinai and Negev deserts, and perhaps as far away as Cairo.

It is impossible to know what the extent of any casualties might have been. That would have depended on such unknowns as the size of the weapon, the population density of the region and the direction of the wind on the day of the detonation.

Yaakov described a helicopter reconnaissance flight he made with Israel Dostrovsky, the first director-general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, the civilian arm of the bomb programme. The helicopter had to turn back after the pilots learnt that Egyptian jets were taking off, perhaps to intercept them. “We got very close,” Yaakov recalled. “We saw the mountain, and we saw that there is a place to hide there, in some canyon.”

— New York Times News Service