McNair Paper 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Institute for National Strategic Studies


McNair Paper Number 41, Radical Responses to Radical Regimes: Evaluating Preemptive Counter-Proliferation, May 1995

Israel's Osirak Attack

In June 1981, Menachem Begin, then Prime Minister of Israel, faced the same dilemma that had faced Iran concerning Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The Israelis had watched apprehensively for two years as Saddam appeared to be nearing a nuclear weapons capability. The centerpiece of his effort was a French-built Osirak-type nuclear reactor turning out plutonium at Tuwaitah. (Note 40) After considerable internal debate within the Israeli ruling circle, Begin ordered his aircraft to bomb it to derail the Iraqi nuclear bomb effort. (Note 41)

Ariel Sharon, part of the Israeli ruling circle, said that, "This was perhaps the most difficult decision which faced any (Israeli) government during all the years of the state's existence." (Note 42)

Begin and a number of other Israeli leaders have been very effective in dealing with terrorists and tough in making military decisions because they, too, were once urban guerrillas operating from relatively weak military positions. They understood the bottom line on fights to the death; hit first with maximum strength. Those who hesitate may die. No present Western national leaders have had this hard experience or appear to share the street fighter mentality that might be required in a confrontation with a nuclear-armed and hostile radical regime.

Israeli intelligence had followed the Iraqi military buildup in the late 1970s. Saddam Hussein had assembled an army of 190,000 men organized into 12 divisions, augmented by 2,200 tanks and 450 aircraft. (Note 43) Both the Isreali Labor government of 1974-77 and the Likud government of 1977-81 closely watched and debated what to do about the Osirak reactor then being constructed with considerable French and Italian help. (Note 44)

Leaders of the opposition Labor Party had adopted a "wait and see" policy that relied upon diplomacy to try to forestall the Iraq effort. Indeed, in 1981 Peres felt he had an understanding with Francois Mitterand, who had just been elected President of France, to reverse the French policy of helping Iraq in nuclear matters. Therefore, Labor favored continued diplomatic efforts to head off Iraqi nuclear capability. (Note 45)

Prime Minister Menachem Begin, leader of the Likud Party, disagreed completely. He did not trust leaving this matter to the French or to fate. He certainly had no reason to trust in the reasonableness of Saddam Hussein. (Note 46) He felt military action was the only remedy. (Note 47) As one Middle East specialist has written, "For Begin, the prospect of an Iraqi nuclear capability, indeed, any Arab nuclear capability, was totally and irrevocably intolerable. It was a devastating weapon that he had no doubt would be used to try and destroy the Jewish nation, a holocaust in the flick of an eye. Begin approached the issue not only in practical terms, but from a passionately emotional and ideological stance." (Note 48)

"For Begin, a survivor of the Holocaust, Hussein was Hitler, and the Osirak reactor was a technologically advanced version of the Final Solution." (Note 49) Begin's decision told the world that there would be no nuclear holocaust involving Israel in the Twentieth Century.

According to some estimates, Iraq in 1981 was still as much as five to ten years away from the ability to build a nuclear weapon. (Note 50) Others estimated at that time that Iraq might get its first such weapon within a year or two.

Begin struck against the Osirak reactor when he did because he feared that his party would lose the next election, and he did not believe the opposition party would have the toughness to preempt prior to the production of the first Iraqi nuclear bomb. Begin did not want to lose what might be the only chance he would have to save the Jewish state. (Note 51)

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