Exclusive: Begin on eve of Osirak raid

The inside story 25 years after the raid on Saddam's nuclear plant.

menachem begin 88 (photo credit: )
menachem begin 88
(photo credit: )
On the 25th anniversary of the Israel Air Force's devastating raid to wipe out Saddam Hussein's nuclear plant at Osirak, prime minister Menachem Begin's adviser has detailed the shocked and initially displeased American reaction to the strike, and Begin's vehement justification of it as an unparalleled act of self-defense. Writing in today's Jerusalem Post, Yehuda Avner, a veteran diplomat who served on the staffs of five prime ministers, describes the atmosphere at Begin's residence, on the eve of Shavuot 1981, as the prime minister waited anxiously to hear how the raid was proceeding. While the planes were en route, Avner recalls, Begin handed him the summary of the Mossad's psychological portrait of Saddam, "and when I read the opening paragraph my heart thumped against my rib cage. It said: 'Saddam Hussein is a hard-headed megalomaniac, cunning, sophisticated and cruel. He is willing to take high risks and drastic action to realize his ambition for self-aggrandizement. His possession and use of a nuclear weapon will enable him to threaten and strike Israel and, thereby, win supremacy over the Arab world. He is prepared to act at an early opportunity, even in the awareness that retaliation might follow.'" While Avner was reading this, Begin was "prowling the room, head down, face grim, arms behind his back, his lips moving imperceptibly in the manner of one muttering Tehillim - Psalms." As the waiting continued, Avner writes, Begin also bitterly castigated Shimon Peres, the opposition leader, for having written to him a few weeks earlier "to ask me to desist from taking action. Hoss gehert aza meisa? [Yiddish for 'Have you heard of such a thing?']," Begin stormed, according to Avner. When word finally came through that the target had been hit and destroyed in less than 90 seconds, Begin praised God and phoned the US ambassador, Sam Lewis. "I have to tell you in all honesty that I suspect some people in the White House will be pretty furious about this," said a shocked Lewis. "Your weaponry was procured from us under the Arms Export Act, for purposes of self-defense only." "Self-defense?" Begin retorted. "What greater act of self-defense could there be than to demolish Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, designed to bring Israel to its knees, kill our people, vaporize our infrastructure - in a word to destroy our nation, our country, our existence? Over these past months I've told you again and again, Sam, that either the US does something to stop that reactor, or we will have to." Stressing the resonance and relevance of the Osirak strike given the current international crisis over Iran's nuclear program, Avner notes that Begin, at the end of a cabinet communique he issued shortly before Shavuot began that evening, vowed that Israel would never allow "an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people" and would take "whatever preemptive measures are necessary to defend the citizens of Israel." ('When Armageddon loomed,' by Yehuda Avner, UpFront, Page 4)