The Israeli Osirak Attack

This week (June 7) in 1981, eight Israeli pilots flying U.S.-made F-15 fighter jets, departed Israel’s Etzion airfield and flew 2,500 miles to a location near Baghdad, Iraq, where Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had built a French-designed, Osirak-type nuclear reactor that Israel feared would soon produce nuclear weapons. Facing no Iraqi resistance — the attack was a total surprise — the Israelis destroyed the Osirak reactor and returned safely to Israel.

And then the explosion occurred.  In Europe, the Soviet Union and particularly in the Arab world, Israel was denounced as an international outlaw and warmonger, and even the United States joined a unanimous resolution of the United Nations Security Council that “strongly condemned” Israel’s actions.  Many critics also claimed Israel had violated the U.S. Arms Control Export Act, which prohibited foreign nations from using American-made military equipment “except in self defense.”

But to Israel, bombing Osirak was self-defense.  Having spent years watching Saddam Hussein relentlessly build up his military arsenal, including medium-range missiles that could reach Israel, the tiny Jewish state felt it could not allow Saddam Hussein to “go nuclear,” and it was clear to Israel that Osirak would have a nuclear weapons capability within two to five years.  Prime Minister Menachem Begin made what he called his “most difficult decision” to destroy Osirak because he feared he might not be in office when Osirak finally went on-line, and he wasn’t sure the more dovish Israeli Labor Party would have the fortitude to destroy Osirak once it had crossed the nuclear threshold.  A Holocaust survivor, Begin had vowed that Israel would never be threatened by a holocaust again — nuclear or otherwise.

Fast-forward 10 years to 1991. Saddam Hussein, who has previously used chemical weapons on Iran and his own people, invades Kuwait and threatens to use the same weapons on both Israel and on the American forces rushing into the Middle East to defend Kuwait’s neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and eventually force Hussein out of Kuwait.  The simple fact that — thanks to Israel — Hussein did not have a nuclear weapons capability radically altered the military balance in that war and allowed the American-led coalition to defeat Iraq without precipitating a nuclear Armageddon.

Lo and behold, condemnation turns to commendation. In October of 1991, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Richard Cheney spoke before the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, saying.  “Let me tonight, in front of this group, thank my good friend David Ivy (chief of the Israeli Air Force in 1981) for the action Israel took … There were many times during the [Gulf War] that I gave thanks for the bold and dramatic action taken some ten years before.”

Fast forward to today as Israel watches its sworn enemy, Iran, attempt to go nuclear …