Politics & Policy

Immaculate Preemption

From the June 14, 2004, issue of National Review.

Raid on the Sun: Inside Israel’s Secret Campaign that Denied Saddam the Bomb by Rodger W. Claire (Broadway, 288 pp., $24.95)

In the course of the last 40 years, France has done more damage to the Middle East than any other country, with the possible exception of the Soviet Union. Successive French governments have had no scruples of any kind in their effort to extract political clout and petro-dollars from the Arabs.

French policy toward Saddam Hussein is a perfect case in point. The moment he began his ascent to absolute power in Iraq in the 1970s, the ingratiation and the profiteering began. Saddam wanted a nuclear bomb and made no secret of it. In 1975, he visited Paris. Jacques Chirac, then French prime minister, was a man after his own heart, sharing the view that power and money have nothing to do with moral considerations. Chirac happily agreed to build Saddam a nuclear reactor at al-Tuwaitha, not far from Baghdad. In view of Iraq’s huge oil deposits it was absurd for the French to pretend that the reactor was for civil purposes. In any case, they made sure to provide the materials for a bomb. It was of no concern that they were certain to be disturbing the peace. After all, it was only the lives of Arabs, Iranians, and Israelis that they were putting at risk.

Too impatient to wait for this project to materialize, Saddam in 1980 invaded Iran. Aware of the potential nuclear danger, the Iranians soon staged an unsuccessful air raid on the reactor. For Israel, the writing was on the wall. A choice loomed: either to wait and see if Saddam intended to realize his threats, or to follow the Iranian example and preempt the danger by taking out the reactor. The issue was one of national survival.

Menachem Begin had been elected Israeli prime minister in 1977. By temperament, he preferred to act rather than let fate take its course. His cabinet included experienced soldiers and politicians such as Ezer Weizman, Yigal Yadin, and Ariel Sharon, and Begin rightly felt that he had to have a unanimous vote of consent from them. For a long time there was dissent; Weizman even resigned. But once the Iraqi reactor was producing fissile material, its destruction would lead to loss of life on an unthinkable scale; intelligence sources began to report that the window of opportunity was closing fast. At the last moment, on June 7, 1981, a squadron of Israeli F-16s took out the reactor. The circles of international bureaucrats and diplomats shook with indignation, most of it humbug. President Reagan, as usual, said what the man in the street was thinking: “But what a terrific piece of bombing!” The Israelis in reality were only escaping from the predicament in which France had landed them.

Rodger W. Claire is a former magazine editor, he knows that the destruction of this reactor makes for a gripping story, and he tells it in a racy magazine style. He has interviewed at length the eight pilots on the mission, as well as their commanders, notably David Ivry and Raphael Eitan, who have both gone on to careers at the highest levels. As might be expected, the pilots are no good either at introspection or at boasting; they did the job, and that’s that. The details Claire provides about the long period of training and preparation are nonetheless full of human interest. Kept in the dark, the pilots’ wives were under great strain. A very senior and celebrated pilot pulled rank in order to be chosen for the squadron, but his were the only missiles that missed the reactor.

This feat of great daring and virtually impeccable execution all the same depended to an uncomfortable degree on chance. None of the aircraft previously available to Israel had the range to fly to Iraq and back. The requisite F-16s were acquired only when the ayatollahs seized power in 1979 and heedlessly cancelled the order put in for them by the dispossessed shah. This Iranian decision in a sense determined events. Even then, modifications to the aircrafts’ fuel loads and armaments were vital, and might still have been impossible to engineer. Nobody knew how to bomb a nuclear reactor, and soundings had to be taken in the United States about the feasibility of it. So testing was the actual sortie that all the aircraft had mechanical failures on the following day. Aviation buffs will appreciate technicalities about inertial navigation systems, initial points, G-suit bladders, KH-11 satellite shots, pop-ups and pippers and radar bloom and much else of the kind.

Begin and his ministers hoped all the time that clandestine secret-service methods would prevent the resort to force. To believe Claire, this was one of Mossad’s finest operations. Agents were apparently able to report accurately developments on the site at al-Tuwaitha. Other agents delayed the project by sabotaging finished cores about to be shipped out of France to Iraq. One Iraqi scientist was suborned without his knowledge, and another was found in Paris with his throat slit after a night with a prostitute.

The moral is that in a dangerous world Israel does whatever it has to do in order to ensure its safety, and if that offends any power great or small, too bad: It is preferable to be alive than dead. The watching world came to accept that Begin had taken a far-sighted, courageous, and justified decision, which kept the peace and even enabled the United States in the end to check Saddam and his projects of destruction. Now the ayatollahs of Iran seem to be preparing to brandish a nuclear weapon in the name of God. One way or another, Claire may soon have another equally dramatic book to write.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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