Now, with the world preoccupied with Saddam Hussein's capture and his crimes, it is interesting to return to the affair that foreign sources called the Israeli plan to assassinate Saddam, the incident known as the Tze'elim 2 affair, in which five Sayeret Matkal soldiers lost their lives during preparations for the plan, which was called to a halt 11 years ago.
Ehud Barak was chief of staff at the time and Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister and defense minister. The idea for the assassination was Barak's and many attribute the operational sophistication of the plan to Major General (ret.) Amiram Levine. If the plan had been brought to a previous prime minister, Menachem Begin, he presumably would not have hesitated very much and would have approved it. He certainly would have seen it the way he regarded the proposal to demolish the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, a proposal he quickly approved even though there were those in Military Intelligence and the Mossad who opposed it. Begin regarded Saddam as an extremist who was trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction, a solitary tyrant at the helm in a regime of horror and an existential danger to Israel. Yitzhak Rabin was different and to this day the question remains if he would have given his final approval to the assassination plan.
Rabin was a man of operational details and never ignored considerations of risk to the soldiers and operatives involved in such an operation. The intelligence picture looked good, perhaps too good, and at least so good that it raised suspicions. Rabin's natural tendency to hesitate was evident in the case of the Entebbe raid meant to rescue hijacked Israelis. By the time he approved the departure for Entebbe, he had exhausted the planners. Nonetheless, in the planning to assassinate Saddam, he took a step forward when he gave a green light to the complex planning and training it involved. Before giving his approval he would have to decide if eliminating Saddam would remove an existential threat for Israel. Before he could decide, the missile accident took place, killing the five soldiers.
There was also a view that eliminating a single person, no matter how important, would not change the overall tendency in Iraq toward aggression and that there was also a chance for opposition to emerge inside the Iraqi regime to the development of weapons of mass destructions. In retrospect, it is clear that was wrong. Even after his defeat in the Gulf War of 1991, Saddam kept developing weapons of mass destruction. In 1995, as a result of the defection of his sons-in-law, it was revealed that Iraq was continuing to develop biological weapons. In other words, if the Israeli assassination plan had taken place in 1993, it would have been possible to avoid the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis and others and to reduce the dangers to which Israel was exposed. The most recent war in Iraq would also have been avoided.
On the other hand, if Israel had gone through with the assassination, most of the countries of the world would have been vehemently critical, just as they were after the demolition of the nuclear reactor in 1981. The U.S. would almost surely have been critical of Israel, but it would have protected Israel in international organizations. Inside Israel, there would surely have been some claiming the assassination exposed Israel to greater dangers and complicated its already difficult relations with the Arab world.
The question of the principle of assassination of extremist leaders has not been solved to this day, even after the capture of Saddam. The example of Hitler always comes up, with the argument that assassinating him in the 1930s would have saved the lives of millions of people. The Arabs don't like that example. Arab leaders did not like Saddam, and Arafat is also not their favorite fellow. But they do not want foreign forces with powerful militaries harming the club of Arab leaders, no matter what the reason. In such roulette, many could become a target in the future. To that, one can say Saddam turned himself into an exceptional category all his own, when in 1995 it became clear he was developing biological weapons.
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