Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor occurred in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran had already tried – unsuccessfully – to attack the Osirak nuclear reactor. In spite of this, the Iraqi leadership, led by Saddam Hussein, was taken totally by surprise by Israel’s action. This was due to the meticulous Israeli plan, which took a few years to prepare and was carried out in a singularly professional manner.
The Israeli government led by prime minister Menachem Begin had exhausted all diplomatic avenues to thwart Iraq’s plans before it reached the conclusion that there was no option but to destroy Iraq’s nuclear reactor by force. The decision-making process in Israel was long, thorough and detailed. Begin believed that all options had to be assessed and every opinion heard.
The United States ambassador to Israel, Samuel Lewis, had already conveyed to the State Department long before Israel’s attack that Israel was adamant that if diplomacy should lead nowhere, it would ultimately resort to military means to put an end to Iraq’s nuclear program. Thus, contrary to what then-US president Ronald Reagan was led to believe immediately after he was apprised of Israel’s attack, Israel had warned the US about the consequences of diplomatic failure. The documents concerned were apparently not forwarded by the outgoing administration of president Jimmy Carter to the incoming Reagan administration.
To be sure, Israel was roundly criticized by the international community, including the United States, for its attack. However, the US administration was hardly monolithic on this. Whereas vice president George H.W. Bush, White House chief of staff James Baker, and defense secretary Caspar Weinberger were particularly critical and wanted to sanction Israel, secretary of state Alexander Haig and US ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick displayed a more nuanced attitude.
INDEED, ACCORDING to then US national security advisor Richard Allen, Haig had confided to him that he was in two minds about it. On the one hand, he wished to support Israel’s action, but on the other, he was pressured by the State Department and governments in the Middle East to come out strongly against it. For her part, Kirkpatrick was known to be in favor of Israel’s attack, but had to maneuver within the State Department in order to strike a delicate diplomatic balance. The US delegation to the UN would support a UN Security Council Resolution condemning Israel so long as sanctions against it were not included.
Following the First Gulf War in 1990-1991, many politicians in the US thanked Israel for its 1981 attack against Iraq’s nuclear reactor. According to his aides, Haig had already anticipated that the day would come when the United States would thank Israel for what it did.
According to secret records that became available as a result of the Second Gulf War in 2003, Saddam Hussein’s intentions had been made crystal clear to his government and military: Israel was an implacable enemy that had to be destroyed. Nuclear weapons were necessary to deter Israel and help the Arab world achieve victory against it in an all-out war. If the Arab armies were to reach the outskirts of the main Israeli cities, Israel, he believed, would threaten to use its own nuclear weapons to avoid destruction. Iraq’s nuclear arms would become necessary then in order to deter Israel and attain its objective.
Israel perceived Iraq as a mortal enemy. Its leaders believed that Saddam was a singularly dangerous enemy. Begin spoke openly about his fear of an Iraqi nuclear device being used against Israeli civilians.
The Begin Doctrine ought to be understood in the context of Israel’s history and particular circumstances as a small country with no geographic depth, surrounded by enemies bent on its destruction. In fact, Israel is the only country on Earth whose very existence is called into question. As far as Israel is concerned, nuclear deterrence (assuming Israel has nuclear weapons) is not an option against a hostile country like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The other side of the Begin Doctrine, even though it has never been mentioned as such, is that Israel should do its utmost to moderate regional conflicts and achieve peace when possible. Thus, Begin left a two-fold legacy: the attack against Iraq’s nuclear reactor and the peace agreement with Egypt.
The writer is a lecturer in the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University.