A New Nuclear Reaction

Unlike the past, Israel's public refuses to relay existential keys to 'just two persons,' or even an inner cabinet of eight ministers; this in itself is a positive development.

Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen
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Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen

A day after the bombing of the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin declared, in an emotional, righteous address, that the legacy of Osirak would serve as national strategic doctrine. According to this doctrine, Israel would do its utmost, including bearing the risk of war, in order to prevent hostile states in the region from obtaining nuclear arms. Begin spoke about the legacy of Osirak in existential terms, as the prevention of any chance that Jewish children would ever face another Holocaust.

Israel's public, haunted by Holocaust anxieties, adopted the Osirak doctrine as though it were holy writ. Regarding existential topics (and abetted by military censorship ), it adopted its leaders' decisions retroactively, and relinquished its right to know and discuss topics before they turn into facts.

In 1981, the public did not know anything about the drama which preceded the bombing of the reactor. It did not know that the deputy prime minister, Yigael Yadin, resolutely opposed the bombing throughout virtually all of the policy discussion, and even intended to resign because of the decision. The public did not know that Defense Minister Ezer Weizman opposed military action in Iraq up to his resignation from the government in 1980.

Up to the present day, we do not know the real reasons for Weizman's resignation from the Begin government, and whether the public arguments he gave for his departure constitute the whole truth. The public did not know that top security officials - including the heads of army intelligence, the Mossad and the director general of the atomic energy commission - stridently opposed the attack, which Begin managed to implement with the help of IDF Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan, and commander of the Israel Air Force, David Ivry.

Since the bombing of the reactor was a military success and did not cause untoward entanglements, the Osirak legacy remains a model of strategic daring here. During the first Gulf War, about 100 Knesset members sent a letter of praise to Begin, writing that his persistence in 1981 saved Israel from a Holocaust. Yet relevant historical materials indicate that this is a perception founded on ignorance. In retrospect, it is clear that the operational success camouflaged Begin's grave strategic leadership failure; Begin did not understand the meaning of intelligence information, and he imposed an unnecessarily drastic interpretation upon this data. Begin's Holocaust fears surrounding Osirak had precious little foundation on the ground.

According to Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer - a Norweigan researcher who is an international authority on the Iraqi nuclear topic - up to the reactor bombing, the Iraqi effort lacked organizational and technological characteristics required of a genuine nuclear weapons program. There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein wanted to obtain nuclear weapons capability at some point, but the project prior to the 1981 bombing was not suited structurally for the production of nuclear weapons. The fact that Saddam imprisoned two leading figures of the project, physicists Hussain al-Shahristani and Jafar Dhia Jafar, due to their connections with Iran, illustrates that loyalty was more important to the Iraqi leader than the bomb.

The problem is not just that Begin's determination to wage the military action lacked appropriate justification: The Osirak bombing is what led Saddam to implement an entirely new nuclear project, based on enriched uranium and not on the production of plutonium. Saddam's decision to adopt this new project, whose goal was nuclear weapons, was reached within three months of the bombing. This means that the bombing success was a Pyrrhic victory. Braut-Hegghammer concludes that the Israeli attack brought damage that outweighed its benefits.

The irony does not end here. The fact that Osirak was left in ruins apparently contributed to the stealthy progress of Iraq's subsequent nuclear effort. Only after close to a decade of secret nuclear activity, which brought Iraq close to the point at which Iran stands today, Israeli intelligence officials awakened from their slumbers, and discovered that Saddam was just a step away from obtaining nuclear weapons (confirmation of this was uncovered after the war ). In the end, Saddam's mistakes, and not the Begin doctrine, are what brought an end to the Iraqi nuclear effort. Saddam was dizzy with power and considered himself the neighborhood bully. In August 1990, he invaded Kuwait, and the rest is history. His defeat in the first Gulf War spared Israel the need to deal anew with the dilemma of the "Begin doctrine" at the start of the 1990s.

Today, Israel again confronts this dilemma, though the situation is completely unlike that of 1981. We will be cursed if Iran becomes a nuclear power in every respect - though, technically, this apparently will not happen, since Iran appears to be adopting its own version of nuclear ambiguity - yet we will face a still more ugly curse should we bring a violent explosion of fire and fury to this region, whose end and outcome is known to nobody.

Meantime, a fascinating change is afoot in Israeli society. If, in the past, there was a tacit agreement that subjects of this matter were not amenable to public discussion - and the military censors, aided by the media, enforced this silence - Israel today refuses to heed this old code. It appears that even the military censors refuse to enforce the disciplined silence. Unlike the past, Israel's public refuses to relay existential keys to "just two persons," or even an inner cabinet of eight ministers. This in itself is a positive, and stunningly unprecedented, development, and it adds another restraint to a fragile system of checks and balances.

Avner Cohen is a Senior Fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and the author of "Israel and the Bomb."



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