The Osirak Precedent

By Aryeh Tepper
Thursday, June 23, 2011

In May 1981, eight Israeli fighter jets were on the runway waiting for the go-ahead to execute the most daring operation ever undertaken by the Israeli air force: flying more than 1,000 miles east over enemy territory to destroy Osirak, Iraq's nuclear reactor. At the last minute, the operation was called off by Prime Minister Menahem Begin after Shimon Peres, the leader of the opposition, got wind of the plan and warned that an attack would incur the wrath of the international community and leave Israel isolated like "a thistle in the wilderness."

Ever the democratic parliamentarian, Begin listened to Peres—at first.  Then, one month later, the air force attacked.  "Operation Opera" was a stunning success, destroying Osirak completely without a single Israeli casualty.  But Peres's fears also proved well founded.  The international community vilified Israel for its "aggression," and even the United States voted with the UN Security Council to condemn the raid.  

It would take ten years and the first Gulf War for Begin and the IDF to get some of their due. In December 1991, Richard Cheney, then the American Secretary of Defense, presented a satellite photograph of the destroyed Iraqi reactor to David Ivri, former commander of the Israeli air force, "with thanks and appreciation . . . [for making] our job much easier in Desert Storm!" Similarly, with Iraq's conventional bombs falling on Tel Aviv, one hundred members of the Knesset penned a note to Begin thanking him for his prescience and courage in having eliminated a far more terrifying threat.

Peres, it should be noted, didn't sign the letter.

Begin's visionary leadership was the subject of a recent tribute at the Begin Center in Jerusalem marking 30 years since Operation Opera. As political, military, and academic figures offered their insights into his historic decision, an inevitable question hung in the background: does Benjamin Netanyahu possess the wherewithal to meet the Iranian challenge as Begin did the challenge from Iraq?

Israel's standing in the international community wasn't the only thing that Begin risked. Ivri recalled how, at the time of the raid, the peace process with Egypt was entering a particularly delicate stage, with Sinai gradually being turned over to the Egyptians and the evacuation of Israeli settlements on the horizon. Egypt protested the attack along with the rest of the world, but the peace held.

Another risk was discussed by Aryeh Naor, cabinet secretary during Begin's tenure. Israeli elections were less than a month away: what would have happened if the operation failed—as many thought it would—and one or more of the pilots were captured? Actually, Naor argued, Begin was afraid that if Peres were to win the upcoming election, the plan would be permanently shelved. He was, in other words, prepared to lose re-election if that was the price to be paid for protecting the Jewish state from an existential threat. Circumstances today, when an attack on Iran could ignite a regional war and inflict heavy losses on the Israeli side, magnify the political risk factor accordingly.

A number of speakers noted the thoroughness of the decision-making process that preceded the attack: eight months of intense discussions by the military and intelligence elite, with both the chief of military intelligence and the head of the Mossad expressing opposition. By contrast, Ehud Olmert's initiation of the second Lebanon war in 2006 was very much a gut decision; during that failed war, the IDF's chief of staff would not allow officers attending cabinet meetings to express opinions contradicting his own.

Can a "Begin Doctrine" be culled from the operation to destroy Osirak? Herzl Makov, the director-general of the Begin Center, states the proposition starkly: "Israel must not allow its enemies to arm themselves with weapons of mass destruction." To Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu's national security adviser, Begin's legacy is more subtle and far-reaching. Having "assimilated the lessons of World War II," Begin was especially sensitive to "how Hitler exploited the world's nations' genuine desire for peace and quiet in order to build up his military strength." What Begin demonstrated, in Amidror's view, was the importance of remaining awake even, and especially, when the rest of the civilized world decides to lie down for a collective nap.  But Amidror also notes that Operation Opera was "in many ways unique," and could be repeated "only in . . . exceptional circumstances."

Even if today's geo-political circumstances should warrant an attack on Iran's nuclear reactors, and even if Israel possessed the operational capacity to undertake such an attack, isn't it true that, at best, Iran's nuclear program could only be set back for an indefinite amount of time? Here, another signal achievement of Begin's may be relevant: the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

If Operation Opera has bought decades without a nuclear-armed Iraq, the peace treaty with Egypt has bought 32 years of quiet on Israel's southern border. True, those achievements may yet be reversed if Iran goes nuclear and the peace with Egypt fails to hold up.  But that hardly renders them meaningless. After all, when ancient Israel's kings and judges rose up to save the country from its enemies, "The land was quiet for 40 years." That significant degree of quiet, too, is part of Begin's legacy to the current generation.

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