What Netanyahu Can Learn From Shamir Before Attacking Iran

Israel's current prime minister is a history buff who could draw insights from a letter written by the former premier about Israel's motives for destroying Iraq's nuclear reactor.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

There is nothing that excites or fascinates Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu more than history. Netanyahu works some kind of historical anecdote into almost every speech, complete with a not so subtle allusion to current events. During the funeral for former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir last week, Netanyahu used his eulogy for his once political patron to deliver a few historical analogies.

The historical issue Netanyahu chose to mention was the famous restraint shown by Shamir during the Gulf War, in 1991. Faced with dozens of Scud missiles falling in Gush Dan (Tel Aviv and its environs), Shamir chose not to retaliate, thus allowing the United States to preserve the international coalition against Saddam Hussein.

Netanyahu doesn't deny that Shamir exercised restraint, though he insists it was only part of the whole story. The big picture, according to Netanyahu, is more complex, and shows that Shamir was on the verge of attacking Iraq. "Shamir did not sit idly by," said Netanyahu during the funeral.

"He notified the U.S. through then Defense Minister Moshe Arens that Israel was going to act against Iraq. The U.S. understood that he was prepared and that his intentions were serious... the U.S. understood that words and promises would not suffice, but before Israel could act, a cease-fire was declared, making an Israeli attack unnecessary. If the rocket fire would have continued, Israel would have acted," said Netanyahu.

After the story, comes the lesson. Like Shamir in 1991, I, Netanyahu, am not sitting idly by. Though I told President Obama that I have still not decided to attack Iran, he knows that I am prepared, and my intentions are serious. Obama knows that I am not satisfied by American words and promises – if the Iran nuclear program isn't halted – Israel will act.

But if we're talking history – this week, the state archive publicized a document concerning Shamir that should interest Netanyahu, who certainly will know how to use it to forge an analogy to our times.

The date was June 9, 1981, and Shamir was the Foreign Minister in Menachem Begin's government. A few days prior, Israel Air Force planes destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor "Osirak," and Shamir was charged with explaining Israel's motives behind the attack that stirred the entire international community. Shamir decided to send a 3 page missive to 35 of his counterparts in countries around the world.

The full text of Shamir's letter can be found here.

"Israel has long been concerned about Iraq's nuclear development programme," wrote Shamir. "All the information in our possession indicated that the Osirak reactor was designed to enable Iraq to develop nuclear weapons capacity."

Shamir added that Israel also received information stating that the Iraqis were expected to load the enriched uranium into the core of the reactor, making it ready to be used for a weapon. The information was significant in that it meant that destruction of the reactor would cause a large scale radioactive disaster, harming hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

"The government of Israel was thereupon faced with a terrible dilemma," wrote Shamir. "Should it let this development go unchallenged, which could endanger the existence of Israel and engulf the whole region in a nuclear war, with all of the implications of the world as a whole, or is it to confront this new and ominous danger and take action in self-defense to prevent, or at least postpone, the Iraqi threat to use nuclear weapons in our area."

Shamir explained in the missive that Israel's concern won out, in light of the nature of the Iraqi regime under Saddam Hussein and his hostility towards Israel.

"I must underline the enormous dangers inherent in the creation of an Iraqi nuclear potential," added Shamr. "It cannot be forgotten that Iraq actively participated in wars against Israel in 1947, 1967, and 1973, and continues to regard itself as in a state of war with Israel."

Towards the end of the document, Shamir explained that Israel attempted to solve the crisis through diplomatic channels, without success, and in the end, decided to attack.

"Israel repeatedly appealed to the nations which supplied Iraq with nuclear technology and material, pointing out the grave dangers which such supply posed to the peace of this region and to Israel in particular," wrote Shamir.

"Unfortunately, these appeals did not have the effect we so fervently desired and the pace of Iraq's nuclear development increased until it reached the stage when the Osirak reactor was about to go critical which could have posed to us a nearly unsolvable problem." wrote Shamir.

Shamir summed up: "I can only reiterate once again that the decision which my government took in self defense was not only one of the most agonizing ones which we ever had to take, but also one which, in responsibility to our people and to world peace, we could not shirk."

Netanyahu, a history buff, who is mulling over the possibility of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities day by day, can most definitely learn some insights from Shamir's missive. Actually – all he would have to do is make some minor changes – and the letter to his foreign counterparts is ready.

Former Prime Minister Yithak Shamir speaking at a press conference in Paris, France in 1987.Credit: AP



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