JWR / Middle East Geopolitics

Jason Maoz: The Day Israel Saved The World

Amos Perlmutter: Saddam's Predictable Defiance

A classic editorial: The West's Unfinished Business

Jon B. Alterman: The Sunset of Arab Leadership

Douglas M. Bloomfield: Time for Israel to Leave Lebanon?

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Cover Story
January 1, 1998 / 3 Tevet, 5758

The Day Israel Saved The World

Israel's Destruction of Saddam Hussein's Nuclear Reactor

By Jason Maoz

In recent months, tensions over Iraq's quest after weapons of mass destruction have resulted in a build-up of American and British forces in the region to an all-time high since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Iraq's Saddam Hussein, having first expelled American members of the United Nations weapons inspection team, and then readmitted them, is now blocking access to a number of designated "presidential sites." Richard Butler, the Australian leader of the inspection team, fears that Saddam is using the sites to conceal his development of nuclear, chemical and biological armaments.

Saddam's willingness to kill off any rival or perceived threat, and his ambition to rule the Gulf and control as much as half of the world's oil reserves, using any means in the process, are deservedly famous. In 1980, a year after taking personal control of the Iraqi state, he launched a destructive attack against Iran, which soon devolved into a war of attrition. Having made little progress, he was able to secure an armistice in 1988 after employing massive poison gas attacks against Iranian troops, a tactic of wholesale slaughter unheard of since World War I. He also deployed sarin gas against thousands of Kurdish civilians in Iraq's rebellious north, wiping dozens of villages and the town of Halabja off the map.

During the course of the war against Iran, Saddam won the friendship of both superpowers, as well as the backing of the Persian Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. For fear of revolutionary Shi'ite Iran, they bankrolled his aggression, even as Iranian counterattacks damaged Iraq's oil infrastructure. He was able to purchase arms from the United States, the Soviet Union, and France.

In 1990, sensing an opportunity, Saddam invaded the tiny but wealthy emirate of Kuwait, the holder of vast oil reserves and billions of dollars worth of Iraqi debt. From that position, he was able to menace the entire Arabian peninsula, and it appeared that Iraqi domination of the Persian Gulf might come to pass after all. The consequences for the world -- the appearance of an overnight Great Power with its hands around the throat of the global economy, ruled by a brutal dictator with seemingly fewer scruples than Hitler -- were well-nigh unthinkable.

By early 1991, however, a massive build-up of American, European and Arab forces in Saudi Arabia, "Operation Desert Shield," had succeeded in deterring further moves by Iraq. Despite the initial reluctance of France and resistance from the Soviet Union, countries holding substantial Iraqi debt, Desert Shield was soon followed by "Operation Desert Storm," which began as a month-long bombing campaign against the Iraqi army and Saddam's communications, transportation, and weapons-development infrastructure.

Saddam's response, missile attacks on Israeli cities and Saudi bases, did not meet with Israeli retaliation and failed to disrupt the coalition arrayed against him. Desert Storm was topped off with a three-day tank drive into Kuwait and southern Iraq, a textbook pincer maneuver on a grand scale that routed Iraq's ground forces.

In their fight to push Saddam's forces back into Iraq, allied forces prepared themselves to face attacks with chemical and even biological agents, which fortunately did not come into use against them. They did not concern themselves with the possibility of Iraqi nuclear weapons. For this relief, they could only thank Israel, whose 1981 bombing raid against Saddam's breeder reactor had been condemned by the world at the time.

Today, despite any number of UN resolutions against Iraq, the United States and Great Britain stand largely alone. France and Russia seek the lifting of sanctions imposed on Iraq after the invasion of Kuwait that would allow increased oil production, opportunities for their own companies in Iraq, and the repayment of debt. Arab countries, uncertain of the depth of Western commitment to their security and unwilling to exacerbate the negative political consequences of maintaining foreign troops on their soil, are against military action. (Israel's leaders, for their part, have declared that they will not stand idly by if attacked again.)

Isolated, American President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair must now decide what course of action to take: how much time should they spend trying to rally support for an attack on Saddam's ever-more diverse array of secret weapons-development sites before they can wait no longer? Will they go it alone if they must? Or will they falter in the face of global indifference to Saddam's threat?

This is the story of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who, perhaps accustomed to others' scorn, did not hesitate.

SHORTLY AFTER 5:30 p.m. on June 7, 1981, Israel saved the world from the threat of nuclear blackmail. In less than two minutes' time, fourteen planes of the Israeli Air Force laid waste to a nuclear reactor on the outskirts of Baghdad. Having done so, they deprived a madman of his potential for mass destruction. The world, however, was outraged.

Voices that had been silent for years as Iraq's brutal dictator Saddam Hussein courted the feckless nations of the West in his quest for nuclear bombs were suddenly raised in a chorus of indignation.

"We don't think [Israel's] action serves the cause of peace in the area," sniffed French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson, whose country had supplied the ill-fated reactor.

"Provocative, ill-timed and internationally illegal," cried US Senator Mark Hatfield.

"Armed attack in such circumstances cannot be justified; it represents a grave breach of international law," scolded the usually sensible British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The New York Times' editorial board was beside itself, too: "Israel's sneak attack... was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression."

Liberal columnist Anthony Lewis proclaimed that the raid "did severe damage to the hope in which Israel's true security must lie: the hope of realistic relations with all its neighbors."

Time magazine informed its readers that Israel had "vastly compounded the difficulties of procuring a peaceful settlement of the confrontations in the Middle East."

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, it should be noted, were in full sympathy with Iraq and helped push through a United Nations resolution condemning the attack on their good neighbor, Saddam Hussein.

SOMEONE UNFAMILIAR with the machinations of international relations would be forgiven for wondering about all the uproar. Wasn't the act of preventing a ruthless tyrant from developing a nuclear arsenal a good thing? Hadn't Saddam Hussein earned his nickname, "The Butcher of Baghdad?" Wasn't he, at the very moment of the Israeli attack, almost a year into his bloody invasion of Iran?

To better understand the world's strange reaction to a suddenly nuclear-less Saddam Hussein, one must look beyond the conventional hypocrisy and self-interest of the nations. Much of the response was disingenuous -- many nations privately expressed satisfaction with the Israeli raid -- and countries like France and Italy justified their involvement with Iraq's nuclear program in terms of economics. (Iraq has oil. Lots of it.)

But how to explain the outcry raised by those countries with no stake in Iraq's nuclear development, countries located well beyond the bounds of conventional Middle East double-talk? And what accounted for the negative reactions on the part of individuals and organizations normally given to shrill denunciations of nuclear proliferation? The answer, it should be fairly obvious, lies with the source of the attack on the reactor: Israel. More specifically, the Israel of Menachem Begin.

For years after its establishment, Israel had the sympathy and support of the West's opinion-making elites. The democracies, stuck in a seemingly no-win cold war with the Soviet Union, admired Israel's fighting spirit, while socialist governments and parties in non-Communist Europe felt a kinship with Israel's ruling Labor party. This widespread support reached its crest with the 1967 Six Day War. The media in the U.S. and Europe virtually celebrated Israel's victory, huge demonstrations were held in Israel's support, and everyone from mayors to movie stars jumped on the Israel bandwagon.

ISRAEL WOULD SOON LEARN, however, that the media giveth and the media taketh away. The portrayal of Israel in the media, so favorable in the years leading up to the Six Day War, became increasingly critical thereafter. To many journalists, Israel was no longer an underdog worthy of enlightened support, but rather a military colossus that refused to make peace with the weaker countries in the vicinity.

America's prestige media (The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and the three major television networks) had, by the late 1960s, joined other elements of the liberal establishment in appropriating some of the language and attitudes of the countercultural New Left. In their growing opposition to America's role in Vietnam (which they had initially supported), liberals were quickly losing faith in all the old certainties. Any nation or movement claiming victimization as a result of American or Western "imperialism" (and Israel was considered very much a part of the West) was certain to win a place in liberal hearts.

It was hardly surprising, then, that by the mid-1970s the media's favorite epithets for Israel were "intransigent" and "militaristic." The plight of the Palestinians was "in"; Israel was definitely "out." Even the frequent terrorist operations carried out by the PLO and its offshoots did little to win back media support for Israel; the atrocities were invariably blamed on Israel's handling of the "Palestinian problem."

Despite the media's antagonistic treatment of Israel, polls showed that most Americans weren't being swayed: a sizable majority still favored Israel over its Arab enemies. And, of course, Israel enjoyed the near-unanimous support of American Jews and the many influential Jewish organizations.

Then came Begin.

By 1977, Israel had been governed by the Labor alignment for 29 years. The alienation of Sephardic Israeli immigrants from the Ashkenazic Labor establishment and a series of corruption scandals involving Labor officials convinced a significant number of Israelis that a change was needed. The scandals only served to highlight the growing discontent among the electorate; the country seemed adrift and Labor had run out of answers. Even so, the election of Menachem Begin on May 17, 1977, set off the shockwaves in Israel as well as the world.

THE QUINTESSENTIAL OUTSIDER in Israeli politics since his days as head of the underground Irgun terror militia in the 1940s, Begin was a man reviled by the Israeli media. Aside from his far-right politics, his very dress and demeanor set him apart from the first generation of Israeli leaders. Begin's rhetoric -- his unabashed references to Jewish history and destiny -- not only discomfited his political opponents in Israel, it even frightened Hadassah ladies having their tea in the U.S.

The reaction of the American media to Begin's ascension was one of disbelief, followed by unremitting hostility. The media in Western Europe were, if anything, even more critical than their American counterparts. Not even the peace treaty signed by Israel and Egypt in 1979 bought better press for Begin, who was portrayed as the "intransigent" (that word again) stumbling block to Anwar Sadat's noble quest for peace.

While the world media were preoccupied with Menachem Begin's threat to peace, however, one of Israel's's antagonists was busy assembling a nuclear bomb factory. From the beginning, Iraq had never been reticent in displaying its animus towards Israel. When the Arab League organized an "Inter-Arab Command" in the months before Israel's birth, an Iraqi general was placed in charge. And when the first Arab-Israeli war ended in mid-1948, Iraq refused to sign an armistice, in stark contrast with the frontline states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. More recently, in 1969, nine Jews were hanged in Baghdad on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel.

IRAQ'S INVOLVEMENT with nuclear technology goes back to 1959, when the Soviet Union, looking to expand its influence in the region, agreed to provide Baghdad with a reactor, enriched uranium, and the necessary scientists and engineers. After numerous delays (the Iraqis accused the Soviets of dragging their feet), the Russian reactor went operational in 1968. And while the Soviets upgraded the reactor's output in 1971 -- from two to five megawatts -- they refused to supply any material that could be used to manufacture nuclear bombs.

By the early 1970s, Iraq was under control of a veteran of political intrigue named Saddam Hussein. Officially second-in-command to Gen. Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, Hussein was, in reality if not in title, firmly in charge. Described by those who knew him as "power hungry to the point of insanity," Hussein destroyed all political opposition, raising the techniques of torture and arbitary killings to an art form. His professed goal was to take up the mantle of the late Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser as "leader of the Arab world."

Possession of nuclear weapons was central to Hussein's dream of greater power, but since the Soviets, to their credit, had turned him down on that score for several years, the search was on for a country willing to deal. Fortunately for Hussein, his rap sheet of torture, bloodshed and megalomania meant nothing to the French in their desire to make a new friend, particularly one overflowing with oil.

At one time the French had been close with Israel, but the relationship had gone sour. France had been Israel's main arms supplier in the 1950s and '60s and the main sponsor of Israel's own secret nuclear weapons program, operated by then-Defense Minister Shimon Peres. But on the eve of the Six Day War, President de Gaulle warned Israel against launching a preemptive strike. When Israel ignored the advice, de Gaulle cut off all arms shipments. France and Israel grew even further apart under de Gaulle's successors in the 1970s, Georges Pompidou and Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

The years 1974 and 1975 saw a flurry of diplomatic activity and ceremonial visits between French and Iraqi officials. In 1974, France's foreign minister, Michel Jobert, went to Baghdad to pledge to provide any assistance Iraq might need to build up its technological infrastructure. "I am happy," said Jobert at the conclusion of his visit, "that your great country will now have the means to restore its past glory."

Not to be outdone by Jobert's groveling, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac of France paid a visit to Saddam Hussein the following year and proclaimed the Iraqi dictator a "great statesman whose qualities will lead his people toward progress and national prosperity." Not long after that, France agreed to build and Osiraq reactor for the Iraqis -- for "research" purposes only, both countries claimed.

RESEARCH, OF COURSE, was not in the plans of Saddam Hussein, who went about the business of procuring a "hot cell," a key component of a "breeder reactor," a design which would not only generate electricity, but also a steady supply of weapons-grade plutonium, suitable for use in an atomic bomb. The government of Italy was more than happy to sell Hussein his badly needed hot cell, and only the blind or the French could not see what Iraq had in mind.

Meanwhile, Israel had been keeping a wary eye on Iraq's nuclear ambitions, and when Menachem Begin took office in the spring of 1977, he stepped up behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts to prevent the Iraqis from becoming a nuclear threat. The United States was Begin's best hope, but the Carter Administration, for all its talk of wanting to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, was less than energetic in pursuing the matter. (As late as 1980, President Carter was reported to have said that he had no intention of imposing U.S. views on countries with nuclear capabilities.)

As Israel's diplomacy foundered, pressures of a different sort were brought to bear against Iraq's nuclear program. In April 1979, just days before the French were scheduled to ship the nearly completed reactor to Iraq, saboteurs infiltrated a warehouse near the port town of Toulon and attempted to blow up the reactor's core. The damage, however, was minimal. Fourteen months later, the head of Iraq's nuclear program was killed in his Paris hotel room. Israeli agents were widely believed to be responsible for both acts.

The sabotage and assassination notwithstanding, work continued as planned on the Osiraq reactor. By the autumn of 1980, Menachem Begin saw no alternative to direct Israeli military action. After ordering his military strategists to formulate a plan for a raid on the Osiraq reactor, Begin continued his attempts at convincing the French to halt production. The response was hardly reassuring; France continued to insist that Iraq's intentions were of a purely peaceful nature.

The only question remaining for Begin was when exactly the raid would take place. He postponed the attack several times in the face of opposition from some of his cabinet members, who worried about the U.S. response. For his part, Begin expected a sharp reaction from Washington, maybe even an American vote to condemn Israel at the United Nations. But it would amount to so much window dressing, he thought; the U.S.-Israeli relationship would remain solid. Ronald Reagan was the new American president, and Begin regarded him and his secretary of state, Alexander Haig, as warm friends of Israel.

It was now the spring of 1981, and as Begin braced himself for the final decision to strike at Iraq, he had one more headache to contend with. He had informed the leader of the Labor opposition, Shimon Peres, of the top-secret plan to attack the reactor. Peres was against it. Begin thus knew the raid would bring a harsh reaction not only from the outside world, but from within Israel as well.

Clouding the whole scenario even further was the matter of the Israeli election to be held in just a few weeks. Begin was running for reelection against Peres, and the race was considered too close to call. He knew he'd be accused of staging the raid to help get himself reelected. But he had an even greater fear, one that convinced him of the need to act before the election -- and a possible Peres victory. "He really believed that Peres would never have the guts to order the raid," said a Begin aide. "And Begin couldn't bear the thought of Israel living in terror of an Iraqi bomb."

There would be no more postponements. In the early afternoon hours of Sunday, June 7 -- the eve of Shavuos -- Israeli pilots went through one last rehearsal, and just after 4 PM the planes took off from an air base in the south of Israel. The flying armada consisted of eight F-16s, each carrying two 2,000-pound bombs, and six F-15s forming a protective umbrella.

Menachem Begin summoned the members of his cabinet to his home in Jerusalem. "Welcome, my friends," he greeted the assembled group. "At this very moment, our planes are approaching Baghdad."

Less than ninety minutes later, Begin received the message he was waiting for: The operation was a total success and the Israeli planes were on their way home. "Baruch Hashem," (Blessed be the Creator) exclaimed the prime minister. "What wonderful boys we have!" Begin's wonderful boys had flown hundreds of miles through Arab airspace and, dropping 16 tons of TNT, crushed the reactor's dome and flattened the main building. "The precision of the bombing was stupefying," said a French technician who viewed the wreckage.

In Israel, news of the raid created an atmosphere of celebration not unlike the euphoria felt after the 1976 hostage rescue at Uganda's Entebbe airport. As expected, the Labor opposition was highly critical, but that criticism was toned down somewhat as Shimon Peres and his colleagues realized how out-of-step they were with the typical Israeli voter.

The United States reacted much the way Begin thought it would. The Reagan Administration voted to condemn Israel in the U.N., and four F-16s scheduled for shipment to Israel were held back a few weeks. Behind the scenes, Reagan assured Israel of his continued support. Begin survived the firestorm of criticism from the world and his Labor opposition, and won reelection. His defense of his action was blunt and emotional.

"The Iraqis were preparing atomic bombs to drop on the children of Israel," he told representatives of the world press several days after the attack. "Haven't you heard of the one-and-a-half million little Jewish children who were thrown into the gas chambers? Another Holocaust would have happened in the history of the Jewish people. Never again, never again. Tell your friends, tell anybody you meet, we shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal."

Many of Begin's critics in Israel would admit to having second thoughts in the weeks and months following the raid. "Up to this point in time, the fact is that I was not right," admitted Labor's Mordechai "Motta" Gur. "It was a triumph, no diplomatic harm was caused, and Israeli deterrence was reinforced," stated Abba Eban. "I admit to having been wrong with respect to the diplomatic fallout I foresaw on the part of the United States," said Yeshua Saguy, who as director of Military Intelligence had expressed reservations about the raid.

The late Moshe Dayan may have put it best: "Not one Arab would shed a tear were Israel to vanish off the face of the map... To me, the raid was a positive action. Iraq was producing nuclear weapons against Israel, and we were obliged to defend ourselves."

IT TOOK THE REST of the world longer to come to grips with the danger posed by Saddam Hussein, but by the time he invaded Kuwait in August 1990, there were no longer any illusions about what he would do with nuclear weapons. In 1981, the Soviet Union had characterized the destruction of the Iraqi reactor as "an act of gangsterism." But nine years later, the Soviet chief of staff called Israel's action understandable. Not a few commentators have made the point that if not for Israel, American troops that were eventually deployed in Saudi Arabia would have has to face Saddam Hussein's nuclear missiles.

Unfortunately, any recount of Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor cannot end on an altogether happy note -- for either Israel or Menachem Begin. Israel remained isolated from the community of nations throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Menachem Begin left office in 1983 a broken man, haunted by the death of his wife and the casualties suffered by Israel in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He died a recluse.

Nevertheless, the story of Israel's destruction of Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor is, more than anything else, the story of Begin's moral and political courage. History will show that when the choice came down to saving Jewish lives or escaping worldwide condemnation, Menachem Begin rained fire from the skies of Baghdad -- without apology.


New York-based journalist Jason Maoz writes regularly on Jewish and Israeli affairs.

©1998, Jason Maoz