Is the ‘Begin Doctrine’ still relevant for Israel against Iran?

Even if the “Begin Doctrine” exists, it does not mean that Israel will always be able to implement it.

 PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin holds a special press conference to announce the Osirak reactor bombing, June 9, 1981. Also present: Uri Porat, PM media adviser (L) and IDF Chief of Staff Rafael ‘Raful’ Eitan (R).  (photo credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)
PRIME MINISTER Menachem Begin holds a special press conference to announce the Osirak reactor bombing, June 9, 1981. Also present: Uri Porat, PM media adviser (L) and IDF Chief of Staff Rafael ‘Raful’ Eitan (R).
(photo credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

On June 9, 1981, after the bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq, prime minister Menachem Begin convened a press conference to address the world.

Two days earlier, Israel had surprised the world, sending a formation of F-16 fighter jets to Iraq to destroy Saddam Hussein’s prized nuclear reactor, named Osirak. The Americans were upset and in about 10 days they would vote in favor of UN Security Council Resolution 487, condemning Israel’s unilateral strike.

But then, just two days after the bombing, Begin and the rest of Israel were still rejoicing in the military success.

“If we stood by idly, two, three years, at the most four years, and Saddam Hussein would have produced his three, four, five bombs then, this country and this people would have been lost, after the Holocaust,” Begin said at the dramatic press conference in Tel Aviv. 

“Another Holocaust would have happened in the history of the Jewish people. Never again, never again! Tell so [to] your friends, tell anyone you meet, we shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal. We shall not allow any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction turned against us.”

 ISRAEL AIR Force pilots who took part in the operation to bomb the Osirak reactor, June 7, 1981.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons) ISRAEL AIR Force pilots who took part in the operation to bomb the Osirak reactor, June 7, 1981. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A few days later, in an interview with CBS, Begin hammered home this point: “This attack will be a precedent for every future government in Israel... every future Israeli prime minister will act, in similar circumstances, in the same way.”

It might not have been immediately clear, but what Begin did set a new standard for Israeli leaders: Israel will act to prevent enemies from obtaining weapons that pose an existential threat to the Jewish state. If preemptive action is possible, Begin seemed to be saying in 1981, it should be used.

This is what became known as the “Begin Doctrine,” a policy that continues to resonate in face of the pursuit of nuclear weapons by other countries in the Middle East, and particularly Iran.

A tiny country about the size of New Jersey, Israel lacks strategic depth. A nuclear explosion in the center of the country would have far-reaching consequences and threaten the continued viability of the Jewish state as we know it. That is what Begin was trying to prevent.

The existence of the “Begin Doctrine” was reinforced in 2007 when prime minister Ehud Olmert decided to use military force to destroy a nuclear reactor North Korea was building in Syria. While it was a continuation of the 1981 model, Olmert refined it a bit, going first to the Americans and urging President George W. Bush to launch a strike himself.

When Bush decided not to, Olmert took action, showing the world once again that Israel will not allow an enemy state, which openly threatens it, to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

When Israel decided to bomb Osirak in 1981, there was little concern of a full-fledged war breaking out. Begin knew that the US would be upset and there was a possibility that Hussein would launch some long-range Scud missiles into Israel, as he did during the First Gulf War a decade later. But that was about it. A war was not a real scenario considering that the countries – Iraq and Israel – do not share a border.

What happened in 2007 was different. Then, the government acted while knowing that a conventional war, with dire consequences for Israel, could break out with Syria. It was just a year after the Second Lebanon War with Hezbollah and IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi had told the cabinet that there was at least a 50 percent chance – and possibly even more – that Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah would retaliate with force to an Israeli bombing.

IN 2022 though, the question is different. Even if the “Begin Doctrine” exists, it does not mean that Israel will always be able to implement it.

Israel, for example, has not launched a preemptive war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, though the terror group has accumulated 130,000 rockets and missiles that cover and threaten the entire country. The question why needs to be asked.

The answer is that while those missiles and rockets are dangerous, they are conventional threats. They can hurt Israel, but they cannot be used to conquer territory or destroy the Jewish state. 

Nuclear weapons are a different story. The detonation of a nuclear weapon over Tel Aviv, for example, would disperse radioactive material almost everywhere in the country. No one would be safe. Many of those not killed in the initial blast would die later from the radioactive fallout.

A country like Israel, without strategic depth, cannot take such a chance.

Nevertheless, when it comes to Iran, the threat is of a different scope. In Iraq and Syria, the targets consisted of one main facility, above ground without protection by advanced air defense systems. Destroying that single facility was enough to set back and delay the country’s nuclear program.

In Iran, the ayatollahs have learned the lessons from Osirak and Syria, and have scattered their nuclear facilities throughout the country.  Some are built in heavily fortified underground bunkers, making them impenetrable to conventional aerial bombings, leading to some speculation that there are limits to what even the mighty Jewish state is capable of doing.

Or, is what happened in 1981 and 2007 just the curtain-raiser for an even bigger face-off with Iran, one that still looms on the horizon?

And then there are questions about the leaders themselves. What will Prime Minister Naftali Bennett do if one day he has to decide whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or not? Is there a way to predict? Will Israel have enough intelligence to make the right decision, or will it be lacking the details needed to launch a successful strike?

These limitations will always exist and leaders will only be able to make decisions based on the information they have before them. They will also always be informed by their life experiences. Begin faced global opposition and was on the eve of reelection when he sent the air force on an unprecedented mission in 1981 to bomb Hussein’s reactor. Olmert was under criminal investigation and was facing calls to resign due to the outcome of the Second Lebanon War a year earlier.

Both might have been excused for agreeing to plans to use diplomacy, and not force, to stop Hussein and Assad. But they didn’t back down. Would other politicians have done the same? It is difficult to know. Like any politician or statesman, Begin and Olmert had their flaws. But they also understood their place in history and the need for action.

The way Begin and Olmert handled the Iraqi and Syrian reactors showed the world that there is no such thing as an “international community” when it comes to one’s national security. Three times Israel tried to get the world to act – in 1981, in 2007 and in more recent years against Iran – and in all of the cases it ended up feeling isolated and on its own.

What will happen with Iran? One thing is for certain, it will be another test of the “Begin Doctrine.” ■

The writer is editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.