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Think Israel wouldn't strike Iran's nukes in defiance of America's wishes? Think again.
As American and Iranian diplomats attempt to reach a rapprochement that would end the historical enmity between their two governments, Israel is weary of being sidelined by its most important ally. While the U.S. incentive for diplomacy is great, it could place Washington in a short-term conflict of interests with Israel, which views Iran as an existential threat. With the renewed negotiations in place, will Israel dare strike a Middle Eastern nation in defiance of its closest allies? It seems unlikely, but 32 years ago, the answer was yes.
On June 7, 1981, Israel launched Operation Opera. A squadron of fighter planes flew almost 1,000 miles over Saudi and Iraqi territory to bomb a French-built plutonium reactor on the outskirts of Baghdad, which Israeli leaders feared would be used by Saddam Hussein to build atomic bombs.
The operation was successful, but the international reaction was severe. On the morning following the attack, the United States condemned Israel, suggesting it had violated U.S. law by using American-made military equipment in its assault. State Department spokesman Dean Fischer reiterated the American position that the reactor did not pose a potential security threat, and White House press secretary Larry Speakes added that President Ronald Reagan had personally approved the condemnation.
Israel didn’t hesitate back then to bomb what it viewed as a threatening nuclear program, even at the risk of provoking a conflict with the United States — and it will likely not hesitate today. As the strike against Iraq shows, Israeli policymakers see the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a hostile regime as an existential threat, and they will risk a breach with Israel’s closest allies to prevent it.
Twelve days after the Israeli strike on Iraq, the U.N. Security Council "strongly condemn[ed]" Israel’s attack as a violation of the U.N. Charter and the norms of international conduct. The wording of the resolution was carefully drafted by Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and was unanimously approved by the council.
The Reagan administration, which had entered office less than five months prior, had been caught off guard by Israel’s surprise attack. Diplomatic cables from the Israeli Embassy in Washington that week reported a very difficult first few days in defending Israel’s actions. Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner noted that the "fierce [critiques] of Israel were unlike previous reactions to Israeli operations in the past … and were fueled by the negative briefings given by the administration to Washington reporters."
As Pazner suggested, the media response was scathing. The New York Times editorialized on June 9 that Israel’s attack "was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression. Even assuming that Iraq was hellbent to divert enriched uranium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons." The Washington Post stated, "the Israelis have made a grievous error … contrary to their own long-term interests and in a way contrary to American interests as well."
The American public was also largely antagonistic to Israel’s attack. Some two weeks after the bombing, a June 19 Gallup poll showed that a plurality of Americans, 45 percent, did not think Israel’s strike was justified. In another Gallup survey, conducted one month after the attack, only 35 percent of Americans said they were "more sympathetic to Israel" than to Arab nations. While 57 percent of Americans believed Iraq was planning to make nuclear bombs, only 24 percent thought bombing its reactor was the right thing to do.
The Arab reaction to the raid was vociferous and universal. Iraq’s rivals, such as Kuwait, Iran, and Syria, denounced the attack, and Saudi Arabia even offered to finance the construction of a new Iraqi reactor. In Washington, recently declassified CIA estimates predicted that the aggravated Arabs would turn away from the United States and toward the Soviet Union. "Washington’s ability to promote Arab cooperation against a Soviet threat or to bring the Arabs and Israelis to the bargaining table has been struck a hard blow," the report warned.
Within Reagan’s cabinet, opinions were split. Six years after a major break in U.S.-Israel relations, triggered by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s refusal in 1975 to withdraw from strategic areas in the Sinai, strong voices lobbied the president to teach Israel a lesson. These figures — including Vice President George H.W. Bush, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and Chief of Staff James Baker — were greatly concerned about Israel’s offensive use of American fighter jets, in violation of the 1952 military assistance treaty.
On the other side of the table sat Secretary of State Alexander Haig and National Security Advisor Richard Allen, who argued for only a symbolic punishment to placate world opinion.
After several days of discussions, Reagan eventually adjudicated in favor of Israel. He would later write in his memoirs that he was sympathetic to Israel’s position and "believed we should give [it] the benefit of the doubt." He directed Kirkpatrick not to condemn Israel itself, but only its "action." The actual punishment was also light — a delay on the delivery of fighter jets that only lasted a few months.
It was a close call for Israel, which in those years was even more reliant on America than it is today. The Jewish state was also grappling with a host of other issues: It was in the fragile final stages of establishing its peace treaty with Egypt, was dealing with tensions on its border with Syria that would erupt into war in Lebanon the following year, and was suffering from triple-digit inflation. But 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."
The current talks between Iran and the international powers over Tehran’s nuclear program present Israel with an added challenge. It would look exceptionally bad for Israel to strike while its closest allies are invested in what is widely seen as historic negotiations. But the risk of isolation in 1981 may have been even greater than today: America was supporting Saddam in his war against Iran back then, while European countries were supplying Iraq with weaponry and were directly involved in the construction of the plutonium reactor. Some 150 Europeans were present in the Iraqi compound, leading Israel to schedule its attack for a Sunday. Despite that, a 25-year-old French technician died in the attack.
While a diplomatic opening did not exist in the Iraqi case, from Israel’s point of view the Iranian diplomatic démarche could go either way. A good deal — one that included sufficient verification of Iran’s nuclear program — would successfully delay the threat while averting unwanted military conflict. A bad deal, however, would provide Iran with diplomatic cover as it continues to grow as an existential threat to Israel — a situation that cannot be tolerated. The devil will likely be in the technical details, but if push comes to shove, it is unlikely that the American position will be a determining factor in Israel’s decision-making process.
The stakes for Israel today are just as high as they were in 1981, and the worldview of its top policymakers remains largely the same as it was then. It is unlikely that the negotiations with Iran will stop Netanyahu from ordering a strike if he concludes diplomacy has failed in providing security. To the contrary, if there is one likely scenario that would push Israel to act, it would be the prospect of an imminent deal with Iran that would isolate Israel while not addressing the threat it sees emanating from Tehran.