A few days before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due to meet with President Barack Obama in Washington, Haaretz published a report saying that President Shimon Peres was opposed to a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The publication drew an immediate reaction from the Prime Minister’s Bureau but the most unprecedentedly scathing criticism of Peres came from Defense Minister Ehud Barak. “This is the same Shimon Peres who opposed the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981,” said Barak. “Peres also claimed at the time that [then prime minister Menachem] Begin was leading us into a Holocaust and there are some who say that he believes to this day that the attack on the reactor was a mistake.”
Barak is right. Peres indeed thought he was correct in 1981. Following Barak’s attack, he explained his position at a number of closed forums by describing the events that took place 30 years ago in Baghdad, Paris and Jerusalem.
In June 1980, France provided Iraq with the first of two shipments of uranium that had been enriched to a concentration of 93 percent, for its nuclear reactor at Osirak. The second delivery of uranium was scheduled for after the presidential elections in France in May 1981. During that period, Israel had already begun following the Iraqi nuclear project closely and the Likud government headed by Begin was considering a military operation to destroy the reactor. The presidential election campaign in France was particularly stormy. The fear in Israel was that the outgoing prime minister, Jacques Chirac, would win.
Chirac was close to Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, and according toinformation reaching Jerusalem at that time, the Iraqi dictator had given Chirac money for his election campaign. The assessment was that if Chirac won the election, he would not hesitate to hand over the second delivery of uranium.
Another candidate for the French presidency was the head of the Socialist Party, Francois Mitterand. He was a close friend of the head of the Israeli Labor Party at that time, Shimon Peres. A few weeks before the elections, the two met. The main topic of their talks was the Iraqi nuclear reactor. Mitterand promised Peres that if he won the election, he would not deliver the second load of uranium and thus the Iraqis would be prevented from building an atom bomb.
On May 9, 1981, Peres sent a letter to Begin and revealed that he was aware that the intention was to bomb the Iraqi reactor a day later – the day that the second round in the French elections was going to take place. Peres wrote to Begin that “under the present circumstances” an attack would be a mistake, hinting that he had received an assurance from Mitterand.
When Begin got the letter, he gave orders to postpone the attack. According to one version, he accepted Peres’ recommendation not to embarrass Mitterand on the day of the election. However, according to another version, Begin postponed the attack because he was shocked over the fact that the date had been leaked to Peres. If so secret an operation had become known to Peres, Begin thought, one could not know who else was aware of it and therefore it was preferable to delay the operation and not to risk its being exposed.
Peres claimed at the time that bombing the reactor would lead Saddam Hussein to move from an open nuclear plan to build a reactor, to a secret program of enriching uranium using centrifuges – which did indeed happen. The Gulf War in 1991 did indeed put an end to the uranium enrichment plan in Iraq, Peres admitted at a closed meeting, but ten years prior to that, on the eve of the bombing, no one could have predicted that that was what would happen.
Eventually the operation took place on June 7 and the Iraqi reactor was destroyed. Three weeks later, the Likud led by Begin won the elections in Israel by a single seat, 48 to 47, over the Alignment party under Peres.
At the closed meeting where he spoke a few weeks ago, Peres said he had no regrets about what he had done during that period. He was also of the opinion that the public did not hold a grudge against him for that. As for the comparison made by Netanyahu and Barak between the reactor in Iraq and the nuclear facilities in Iran, Peres said that it was not to the point. Quoting an old Italian saying, he explained: “It’s like comparing a sausage with a snake - the diameter may be the same but it’s not the same creature.”
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