Originally posted September 18, 2002
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, Israeli jets laid waste an atomic reactor on the outskirts of Baghdad, and so deprived a brutish dictator the potential for mass destruction.
The world was outraged.
Voices that had been silent for years, while Iraqi leader 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 Hussein the ill-fated reactor.
“Provocative, ill-timed and internationally illegal,” sobbed U.S. 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,.
“Israel’s sneak attack…was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression,” snarled a New York Times editorial written by editorial page editor Max Frankel.
“[The attack] did severe damage to the hope in which Israel’s true security must lie: the hope of realistic relations with all its neighbors,” sermonized New York Times paleoliberal columnist Anthony Lewis.
“[Israel has] vastly compounded the difficulties of procuring a peaceful settlement of the confrontations in the Middle East,” sniped Time magazine.
Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, it should be noted, expressed complete sympathy and solidarity with Iraq, and in fact helped push through a United Nations resolution condemning Israel for the attack on their good neighbor.
Innocent souls unschooled in the machinations of diplomatic flimflam were no doubt mystified by all the uproar.
After all, isn’t the act of separating a ruthless tyrant from a state-of-the-art nuclear arsenal a good thing?
Wasn’t Saddam Hussein, at the very time of the Israeli attack, a year into his bloody invasion of Iran?
And hadn’t Hussein worked long and hard to earn the nickname ‘Butcher of Baghdad’?
Certainly there was more than a touch of disingenuousness in the response to the destruction of the reactor – several countries had ties of their own to the Iraqi nuclear program, while some world leaders expressed approval of the Israeli action privately even as they denounced it publicly.
But how to explain the outcry from nations that had no stake in the success of Hussein’s nuclear development; nations that for the most part were located well beyond the bounds of Middle East double-talk?
And how to account for the negative reaction on the part of individuals and organizations usually given to shrill warnings about the dangers of nuclear proliferation?
The answer, it should be fairly obvious, lay with the source of the attack on the Iraqi reactor: Israel. More specifically still, the Israel of Menachem Begin.
From Underdog To Colossus
For years after its establishment, Israel enjoyed the support of the Western world’s opinion-making elites. The democracies, stuck in what appeared to be a no-win cold war with the Soviet Union, admired Israel’s fighting spirit, while socialist governments in non-Communist Europe felt a kinship with Israel’s ruling Labor party.
This widespread affinity for Israel crested with the 1967 Six-Day War. The media in the U.S. and Europe virtually celebrated Israel’s lightning victory, huge demonstrations on behalf of Israel were held in just about every Western capital and major city, and public figures from mayors to movie stars rushed to leap aboard the pro-Israel bandwagon.
But as Israel would find in the years to come, popular opinion is indeed as fickle a phenomenon as the cynics say it is. Israelis would also learn, rather quickly, that the media giveth and the media taketh away.
The portrayal of Israel in newsprint and on television, so positive in the years leading up to the Six-Day War, became increasingly negative thereafter. To many journalists, Israel was no longer an underdog deserving of support, but rather a military Colossus refusing to make peace with the weaker states in its neighborhood.
America’s prestige media (The New York Times, Washington Post, Time, Newsweek and the three television networks) had, by the late 1960’s, joined other elements of the nation’s liberal establishment in appropriating a good deal of the language and attitudes of the countercultural New Left.
As they grew increasingly opposed to America’s role in Vietnam, liberals were fast losing faith in all the old certainties. Any nation or movement claiming victimization at the hands of the U.S. or the West (and Israel was considered very much a part of the West) was almost guaranteed to win a place in liberal hearts.
It was hardly surprising, then, that by the mid-1970’s the media’s stock descriptions of Israel were ‘militaristic’ and ‘intransigent.’ The ‘plight of the Palestinians’ (another stock phrase of the era) was in; Israel was definitely out. Even the frequent terrorist operations mounted by the PLO and its offshoots did little to win back media support for Israel; the atrocities almost invariably were blamed on Israel’s so-called callous handling of the ‘Palestinian problem.’
Despite the media’s antagonism, however, polls continued to show that most Americans refused to be swayed and still favored Israel, by sizable margins, over its Arab enemies.
And, of course, Israel retained the near-unanimous support of American Jews and the various influential Jewish organizations.
Then came Begin.
By 1977 Israel had been under the governance of the Labor party for 29 years, going back to the founding of the state in 1948. But a series of scandals involving key Labor officials, coupled with a general sense that the country was adrift and rudderless, caused many Israelis to forgo traditional political attachments and turn to the opposition Likud bloc for answers.
Even with all that as backdrop, however, the election that May of Menachem Begin as prime minister set off shockwaves, both within Israel and around the world.
The quintessential outsider in Israeli politics since his days as head of the underground Irgun in the 1940’s, Begin was a man reviled by the Labor-friendly Israeli media. And it wasn?t just Begin’s right-wing ideology that had made him a pariah in Israel’s proper circles; his formal dress and courtly demeanor set him apart from the brash and decidedly informal image cultivated by Israeli leaders of his generation.
Most of all, though, it was Begin’s rhetoric – his unabashed references to Jewish history and his unembarrassed affirmations of Jewish destiny – that not only discomfited his political opponents in Israel, but downright frightened Hadassah ladies at lunch in the U.S.
The reaction of the American and European media to Begin’s ascension was one of initial disbelief followed by unremitting hostility.
Not even the 1979 peace treaty signed by Israel and Egypt bought better press for Begin, who throughout the negotiations was derided as the ‘intransigent’ (that word again) stumbling block in the way of Anwar Sadat’s noble quest for peace.
Iraq Looks For Nukes
While the media were preoccupied with the threat to peace posed by Menachem Begin, one of Israel’s most militant antagonists was determinedly going about the business of building a nuclear bomb factory. For Saddam Hussein, procurement of an arsenal that could mean the destruction of Israel was a goal of the highest priority.
Iraq had never been reticent in displaying its animosity toward the Jewish state. When the Arab League organized an ‘Inter-Arab Command’ in the months before Israel’s birth, an Iraqi general was placed in charge, and at the conclusion of the first Arab-Israeli war, Iraq refused to sign an armistice – in stark contrast to the Arab front-line states of Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
More recently, nine Jews were hanged in Baghdad in 1969 on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel.
Iraq’s interest in nuclear technology dated 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 a team of scientists and engineers. After several delays – the Iraqis accused the Russians of dragging their feet – the reactor finally went operational in 1968.
Though the Soviets upgraded the reactor’s output (from two to five megawatts) three years later, to their credit they steadfastly refused to supply the Iraqis with any material that could have been used in the manufacture of nuclear bombs.
Iraq in the early 1970’s had come under the de facto control of Saddam Hussein, though officially Hussein was second in command to General Ahmed Hassan-al-Bakr. Described by those who knew him as ‘power hungry to the point of insanity,’ Hussein destroyed his political enemies, in the process raising the practice of torture to an art form. His stated goal was to take up the mantle of the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser as undisputed leader of the Arab world.
Possession of nuclear weapons was central to Hussein’s ambitions. But since the Soviets had unequivocally rejected the Iraqis’ requests on that score, the search was on for a country that might be more willing to deal. Fortunately for Hussein, his rap sheet of bloodshed and crazed megalomania meant nothing to the French, who loved to make new friends, particularly ones swimming in oil.
France Loves Saddam
Ironically, France had been Israel’s primary arms suppliers in the 1950’s and 60’s, but on the eve of the Six-Day War the French president, Charles de Gaulle, warned Israel against launching a preemptive strike. When Israel chose to ignore his advice, an insulted de Gaulle cut off all arms shipments.
Relations between Israel and France would grow even more strained under de Gaulle’s successors, Georges Pompidou and Valery Giscard d?Estang.
The mid-1970’s were notable for a flurry of diplomatic activity among French and Iraqi officials. In 1974 France’s foreign minister, Michel Jobert, went to Baghdad and pledged any assistance Iraq might need to build up its technological infrastructure.
“I am happy,” Jobert said in a toast to his Iraqi hosts, “?that your great country will now have the means to restore its past glory.”
Not to be outdone by Jobert’s groveling, the French prime minister, Jaques Chirac, paid a call on Saddam Hussein the following year and proclaimed the Iraqi dictator a ‘great statesman whose qualities will lead his people toward progress and national prosperity.’
It wasn’t long after Chirac’s visit that France agreed to build an Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq – strictly for ‘research’ purposes, both sides claimed.
‘Research’ was the last thing on Hussein’s agenda, and the Iraqi leader let it be known that he was in the market for a ‘hot cell’ – a piece of equipment that would enable Iraq to develop weapons-grade plutonium. The government of Italy proved eager to sell Iraq its badly-needed hot cell, and at that stage only the blind or the French could fail to see what Hussein had in mind.
All the while Israel had been keeping a wary eye on Iraq’s nuclear ambitions. When Begin took office in 1977, he stepped up behind-the-scenes efforts to prevent Iraq from becoming a nuclear threat. The U.S. was Begin’s best hope, but the administration of President Jimmy Carter, for all its talk of wishing to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, was less than energetic in pursuing the matter.
As Israel’s diplomatic efforts foundered, pressure of a different sort was brought to bear on the Iraqis. 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 of Toulon and attempted to blow up the reactor’s core. Damage, however, was relatively minimal.
Fourteen months later, the head of Iraq’s nuclear program was killed in his Paris hotel room.
Israeli agents were believed to be responsible for both incidents.
Sabotage and assassination notwithstanding, work continued as planned on the Osirak reactor. By the autumn of 1980, Menachem Begin had concluded that Israel would have to take direct military action. As his military strategists set to work on a plan to take out the reactor, Begin kept up the diplomatic entreaties, all to no avail. The French insisted that Iraq’s intentions were of a purely peaceful nature.
Time To Act
In early 1981, the only question remaining for Begin was when to launch the attack on the reactor. Several times the operation was postponed when members of Begin’s cabinet voiced their concerns over how the U.S. would react to the attack.
For his part, Begin expected a sharp reaction from Washington, perhaps even a U.S. vote to condemn Israel in the U.N. But, he thought, it would all be so much window-dressing. Ronald Reagan was the American president, not Jimmy Carter, and Begin regarded Reagan and his secretary of state, Alexander Haig, as warm friends of Israel.
It was now the spring of 1981, and as he braced himself for the final decision to strike at Iraq, Begin faced yet another obstacle. He had informed Labor party leader Shimon Peres of the plan to bomb the reactor, and Peres, predictably, was vigorously opposed to the idea. So Begin knew the operation would bring strong reaction not only from the outside world, but from within Israel as well.
Clouding the situation even further, Israelis would be heading to the polls in just a few weeks. Begin, up for reelection, was locked in an extremely tight race with Peres and feared he would be accused of staging the raid as an election ploy. 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 the festival of Shavuot – Israeli pilots went through one last rehearsal.
A little after 4 p.m., the planes took off from an airbase in southern Israel. The flying armada consisted of eight F-16 fighter jets, each carrying two 2,000-pound bombs; six F-14’s forming a protective escort; and several F-15’s with oversize tanks to provide mid-air refueling.
Begin summoned his cabinet to his home in Jerusalem. “Welcome, my friends,” he greeted the assembled group. “At this very moment our planes are approaching Baghdad.”
About an hour and a half later, Begin received the message he’d been anxiously awaiting. The operation was a total success and the planes were on their way home.
“Baruch Hashem (Praise G-d),” Begin exclaimed. “What wonderful boys we have.”
Begin?s boys had flown undetected through hundreds of miles of Arab air space and dropped 16 tons of TNT, crushing the reactor?s dome and flattening the main building.
“The precision of the bombing,” marveled a French technician who viewed the wreckage, “was stupefying.”
Tell Anybody You Meet
In Israel, news of the raid set off an atmosphere of euphoria not felt since the 1976 Entebbe rescue. As expected, the Labor opposition was highly critical of the operation and its timing, but the criticism was quickly toned down once Peres and his colleagues realized how out of sync they seemed with the mood in the street.
The U.S. reacted much the way Begin thought it would. The Reagan administration voted to condemn Israel in the U.N., and a few F-16’s scheduled for shipment to Israel were held back a few weeks. At the same time, President Reagan called Begin to assure him of his continued support.
“Technically,” Reagan would write years later, “Israel had violated an agreement not to use U.S.-made weapons for offensive purposes, and some cabinet members wanted me to lean hard on Israel because it had broken this pledge….but I sympathized with Begin’s motivations and privately believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Begin survived the international firestorm of criticism and went on to win reelection. His defense of the raid was blunt and emotional.
“The Iraqis were preparing atomic bombs to drop on the children of Israel,” he told a gathering of foreign correspondents in Jerusalem several days after the attack.
“Haven’t you heard of 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,” conceded Labor’s Mordechai Gur.
“It was a triumph, no diplomatic harm was caused and Israeli deterrence was reinforced,” said Abba Eban
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.”
One Man’s Courage
It took the rest of the world a little more time to come to grips with Saddam Hussein, but few illusions remained by the time Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990.
In 1981 the Soviet Union had characterized the attack on Saddam’s reactor as ‘an act of gangsterism’; nine years later the Soviet chief of staff called Israel’s action understandable.
In the fall of 1990, as an American-led coalition of nations prepared for war with Iraq, then-U.S. defense secretary Dick Cheney publicly thanked the Israelis for their action.
Sadly, any recounting of the destruction of the Iraqi reactor cannot end on an altogether happy note. Menachem Begin left office in 1983 a broken man, grieving over the death of his wife and haunted by the high number of casualties suffered by Israel in its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. He lived the last years of his life as a recluse, suffering a range of bodily ailments and rarely venturing out in public.
And yet, the story of the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor is, more than anything else, the story of Begin’s moral and political courage.
It is the story of a man who, as prime minister, disappointed many of his most fervent supporters by never quite living up to their expectations; a man who, in the estimation of many Israelis, would say all the right things before backing down to the likes of a Jimmy Carter or an Anwar Sadat.
But history shall forever show that when the choice came down to saving Jewish lives or avoiding worldwide condemnation, Menachem Begin rained fire from the skies of Baghdad – without apology.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org