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The Israeli "Nuclear Alert" of 1973: Deterrence and Signaling in Crisis

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On the afternoon of October 6, 1973, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the armies of Egypt and Syria launched major assaults against Israeli positions along the Suez Canal and in the Golan Heights. Within a day, Arab armies had seized the east bank of the Canal and substantial territory in the Heights, and had repelled Israeli air and ground counterattacks. The mood in the Israeli high command was dark, and in some places almost apocalyptic. Moshe Dayan, defense minister and national hero, went so far as to suggest that the very existence of Israel the third Temple could be in jeopardy. It has long been rumored that in this desperate context Israel alerted or somehow manipulated its nuclear forces perhaps in order to blackmail the United States into providing greater support, as one American journalist alleges, or to deter further Arab assault. If true, this would constitute one of the very few serious nuclear threats of the nuclear era. This in and of itself makes it a topic of enduring interest. But in light of the continued and perhaps growing salience of nuclear weapons and thus also their political uses in the hands of U.S. adversaries as well as allies and partners, this study is of more than antiquarian interest because, in concert with other examples drawn from crises and conflicts, it helps elucidate how nuclear weapons can affect and influence the course of politics and war. Yet there has never been a serious, in-depth study of this incident that has had access not only to key participants both American and Israeli and open sources, but also to the tremendous store of U.S. Government documents pertaining to the Yom Kippur War. This study is the first of this kind on this incident and represents the results of almost a year of extensive research in U.S. Government archives and in the open literature, numerous interviews with participants and experts, and the convocation of a workshop to discuss the issue.

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  • Government and Political Science
  • Nuclear Warfare

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