First Word: When Armageddon loomed

On Erev Shavuot 25 years ago, Israeli aircraft destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor.

iaf planes 298 88 idf (photo credit: IDF)
iaf planes 298 88 idf
(photo credit: IDF)
Prime Minister Menachem Begin's military secretary, Brig.-Gen. Ephraim Poran - otherwise known as Freuka - was an unexcitable, soft-spoken soldier who had a reputation for keeping his head while others about him were losing theirs. So, when he phoned on the eve of Shavuot 1981 to tell me in a supercharged voice that I was to drop everything and join him instantly at the prime minister's residence, I took it that something untoward was afoot. Begin was at his desk immersed in a document when I panted my way through his study door. He threw me a perfunctory glance, and in a tone that was cold and hard-pinched, said, "Freuka will tell you what it's about." I could see by the manner of his speech, his sunken shoulders and the ashen circles around his eyes that whatever was afoot was taking its toll. The red emergency telephone sounded a high, shrill, piercing and startling ring, causing Begin to sit up sharply, ramrod straight, and lock a level gaze on Freuka Poran, who had grabbed the receiver. The military secretary listened, nodded, said "Repeat that," nodded again, returned the receiver, and in a stony voice, said to Begin, "The aircraft have just taken off. The chief of staff [Raful Eitan] briefed the pilots personally. He told them that the alternative to their success might be Israel's destruction." "Hashem yishmor aleihem. May God protect them," said Menachem Begin with an air of consecration, and I could see the arteries throbbing in his neck. FREUKA TOOK me aside to quickly tell me what was happening: the world's first air strike against a nuclear plant was under way. Our aircraft had taken off for Baghdad to destroy Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor named Osirak which, by the Mossad's estimation, was on the brink of producing a bomb. The operation was highly hazardous. Our pilots had to fly 1,100 km. over enemy territory, skimming low in close formation across the desert floor, beneath the Jordanian, Saudi Arabian and Iraqi radar defenses. Within the hour - five o'clock - they would be over their target. The prime minister had summoned the cabinet to assemble at his home for that hour. Most knew nothing of the operation. My job was to assist him with the English version of the official communique, for cabinet approval. "I advise you to take a look at this," said the premier, handing me the document he had just been studying. "See what a villain we're up against." It was a resume of a Mossad psychological portrait of Saddam Hussein, 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." Rising stiffly to his feet, the prime minister began prowling the room, head down, face grim, arms behind his back, his lips moving imperceptibly in the manner of one muttering Tehillim - Psalms. And then, mid-stride, painfully, as if he was at his wit's end, he growled: "Here we are waiting for news that could mean life or death for Israel, and Shimon Peres [then leader of the Labor opposition] has the temerity to ask me to desist from taking action. Hoss gehert aza meisa? [Yiddish for 'Have you heard of such a thing?']" H e took from his pocket a folded hand-written letter, shook it open, and passed it to us. "See for yourselves." Date-marked May 10, it was classified "Personal" and "Top Secret," and it read: "At the end of December 1980, you called me into your office in Jerusalem and told me about a certain extremely serious matter. You did not solicit my response and I myself (despite my instinctive feeling) did not respond under the given circumstances. I feel this morning, however, that it is my supreme civic duty to advise you, after serious consideration and in weighing the national interest, to desist from this thing. I speak as a man of experience. The deadlines reported by us (and I well understand our people's anxiety), are not realistic. Materials can be changed for other materials. And what is meant to prevent [disaster] can become a catalyst [for disaster]. Israel would then be like a tree in the desert. I am not alone in saying this, and certainly not at the present time under the present circumstances." Repocketing the letter, Begin glanced at his watch. "How much longer?" "They'll be over the target within 10 minutes," said Freuka softly. The premier walked over to the window, pulled aside the curtain which was perpetually drawn for security reasons, and said, "The sun is beginning to go down. It will be Shavuot within the hour. I don't want to keep the cabinet after the festival sets in," and again his lips moved mutely. An excruciating silence descended on the room. There was no movement, not even a whisper of sound. The man's face was indecipherable; it revealed nothing of what he was feeling. It was a moment much more given to private prayer than to conversation. And then, RING! RING! RING! WITH GLACIAL slowness Menachem Begin turned from the window as Freuka dived for the phone. "Yes? When? How long? Are you sure? Can you totally confirm that?" Thus Freuka, his voice sharp and brusque. Now, standing to attention, arms rigid, Brig.-Gen. Ephraim Poran faced Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and stated: "Sir, I am able to report that our aircraft have just destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor by direct hits. Our planes are on their way home now. The raid took fewer than 90 seconds." "Baruch Hashem!" cried Begin, clapping his hands in jubilation. "O, thank God! O, thanks to the Almighty for having blessed us with such fine sons as pilots." Then, to me, "Please connect me with the American ambassador." When Ambassador Samuel Lewis came on the line I automatically picked up the extension to record the exchange: "Sam, I would like you to convey an urgent message from me to President Reagan. Our air force has just destroyed Osirak, Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor. Please transmit this news as quickly as possible to the Oval Office." "Completely destroyed?" Lewis sounded shocked. "Yes, direct hits." "Well, I have to tell you in all honesty that I suspect some people in the White House will be pretty furious about this. Your weaponry was procured from us under the Arms Export Act, for purposes of self-defense only." "Self-defense?" Begin's tone escalated to a feisty pitch. "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." "I hear what you say and I shall faithfully convey your message to the president." "Thank you." NOW THE prime minister began to stride around the room once more, but this time at a much slower pace than before. As he walked unhurriedly to and fro he grew progressively more pensive until, by degrees, his features became so firmly set in thought it was as if they carried a startling load of information. Those who knew him recognized the look. Menachem Begin was mentally organizing what he wanted to report to the world about the raid, paragraph by paragraph. This was how he prepared his speeches, how he constructed his amazing flow as an orator, his beautifully structured passages - all pre-assembled and composed in the alcoves of his mind. Finally, voice tranquil, his every word calibrated, he began to dictate to me the language of the communique for the approval of the cabinet, whose members had meanwhile assembled in the lounge next door: "On Sunday, June 7," he commenced, "the Israeli air force launched a raid on the atomic reactor near Baghdad, Osirak. Our pilots carried out their mission fully. The reactor was destroyed." The red telephone again shrieked. "Nifla! Wonderful," said Freuka into the receiver, and then, to the prime minister, "All our aircraft have just landed without a scratch." "Add that to the last paragraph," said Begin to me spiritedly, "Write, 'All our aircraft returned safely to base,' Baruch Hashem." And now he delved into the military, moral and judicial justifications for the raid on Osirak, ending with a warning whose current resonance grows louder with each passing day: "Let the world know that under no circumstances will Israel ever allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people. If ever such a threat reoccurs we shall take whatever preemptive measures are necessary to defend the citizens of Israel with all the means at our disposal." The writer is a veteran diplomat who served on the personal staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin.