Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Reviewing Begin's Decision to Bomb Iraq's Nuclear Facility

...despite the myriad risks, the Israeli cabinet decided to attack.

Why? Above all, because its leaders truly believed that the nuclear program was an imminent existential threat. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin would continue saying, until his last days, that in those years he experienced nightmares of Jewish children dying in a second nuclear holocaust -- one that it was his duty to prevent. And the "Begin doctrine" that he created -- that Israel will not tolerate weapons of mass destruction in the hands of an enemy state -- is alive and well today.

What many international observers dismiss as alarmism was a very real factor in the mind of Begin, a Holocaust survivor who lost both his parents to the war. The same echoing trauma and sense of historical duty is ubiquitous among Israel's top leadership. And it is apparently the prism through which Benjamin Netanyahu sees the world: "It's 1938, and Iran is Germany," the current Israeli prime minister told a conference in 2006. "[Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] is preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state."

Nor was the attack on the Iraqi nuclear facility an isolated event. In 2007, Israel again decided to strike a nuclear reactor in defiance of its strongest ally. In the preceding year, U.S. and Israeli intelligence assets had discovered a covert Syrian plutonium reactor being built with North Korean assistance. For long months after its detection, Israel and the United States had intimately cooperated on how to handle its removal. It was only when President George W. Bush told Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that the United States had decided to take the matter to the United Nations, rather than strike itself -- or agree to let Israel strike -- that Jerusalem decided to act, even against an explicit American objection.

In both the Syrian and Iraqi cases, the Israeli government exhausted all other options before resorting to a military strike. Begin launched a sabotage campaign against Iraq's nuclear program in 1979 after his cabinet decided that diplomacy had run its course. Iraqi scientists were assassinated, French technicians were threatened, and containers holding key parts of the reactor were blown up on their way to Iraq. But in January 1981, an internal intelligence committee ruled that sabotage was no longer "sufficient in delaying the program," which lead to the ultimate decision to strike. In 2007, Olmert negotiated with the Americans in the hope that they would do the dirty work for him, and he only directed his military to strike after Bush turned him down.

Nothing indicates that Netanyahu's thinking is any more dovish than that of Begin or Olmert. The Israeli premier is keenly aware of history and knows how small and short-lived the costs to Israel were in the past. He also knows that Israel was later greatly appreciated for the decisive actions it took, that the Israeli Jewish population takes the perceived threat from Iran seriously, and that the "Begin doctrine" is lauded domestically to this day. In an Oct. 15 Knesset speech marking the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war, he said, "There are cases when the thought about the international reaction to a preemptive strike is not equal to taking a strategic hit."

- Uri Sadot
Foreign Policy

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