Operation Opera: Israel's Bombing of Iraq's Nuclear Reactor
Today, we review the events; on Wednesday, we hear what they might mean for Iran
On June 7, Israel marked 41 years since the successful attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak.
This week, we focus on that event and its implications for Iran today. Today’s column recounts the attack itself, while on Wednesday, we will hear from Chuck Freilich, a leading Israeli security expert, on whether Israel would or could do something similar with Iran, and why.
It was about three in the afternoon on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, on June 7, 1981, when Yehuda Avner, Begin’s English speechwriter and a member of his inner circle, was suddenly summoned to the PM’s residence. Jerusalem was settling into holiday mode for Shavuot, and religious Jews like Avner would soon be heading to synagogue for services and then, as customary, staying awake all night to study Torah.
So Avner, who lived not far from the prime minister, half walked, half ran to the residence. When he was ushered in, he found himself alone with Begin and Poran [Begin’s military secretary]. Begin, normally the gentleman who always had time for social graces, greeted Avner almost perfunctorily and said, “Freuke [Poran’s nickname] will fill you in.”
With that, the prime minister returned his gaze to the binder of papers he had been reading. Freuke told Avner that eight Israeli jets were about to take off for Iraq in order to destroy the nuclear reactor at Osirak. Begin wanted Avner to prepare communiqués for three possible scenarios: complete success, partial success, and utter failure. He also told Avner that Yechiel Kadishai had invited all the cabinet members to the residence for 5:00 p.m. Each member of the cabinet had been invited individually; each thought he had been summoned to a private meeting with the prime minister. Begin was still lost in his binder, filled with the Mossad’s assessment of Saddam Hussein’s personality—convincing himself one last time, Avner surmised, that the risky operation was utterly unavoidable—when the red telephone on the desk rang. All three men jumped, and Freuke answered.
Begin’s eyes bored into him, Avner recalled. Freuke listened, and made a few staccato replies. As soon as he hung up, he reported that the army’s chief of staff, General Rafael Eitan, had just briefed the pilots, telling them that if they failed, the State of Israel might not survive. The planes were now taking off. “Hashem yishmor aleihem”—May God protect them—Yehuda Avner recalled Begin saying.
Begin walked to and fro across the room, his lips moving silently. Avner, who had never seen Begin pacing that way, assumed the prime minister was reciting Psalms. The Polish boy who had grown up in a Bible-loving home and had studied in a yeshiva still knew Psalms by heart. Begin prayed while Freuke and Avner waited in agonizing, purposeful silence. Eventually, Begin spoke. He knew that his decision to bomb Osirak with Israeli elections looming might be read as an effort to influence the outcome of his race against Shimon Peres, who was leading in the polls. But no matter, he insisted to Freuke and Avner. The reactor needed to be destroyed now, because it would soon go hot, meaning that any later attack would unleash radiation. It needed to be destroyed now because Peres, who had called the possibility of such a strike “stupid and reckless,” might win.
Begin was certain that Peres, though instrumental in securing Israel’s own nuclear capability from the French years earlier, was not made of what it would take to launch the attack and protect the Jewish people from a maniacal tyrant. So before he lost power, Begin was doing it himself.
Again, the phone rang. The planes had been in the air for about forty minutes. Again, Freuke answered, and again Begin and Avner waited in steely silence. Freuke put down the receiver. “The planes are now over the target.” Begin’s lips moved once more in silent prayer. Moments later, the phone rang again; Freuke answered, listened, then hung up. It was the chief of staff, he said. Direct hits. All targets completely destroyed.
The planes were on their way home.
Begin asked Avner to get Sam Lewis, the American ambassador to Israel, on the phone. Lewis, like virtually everyone else in the country, was at home in those pre-holiday hours. Begin informed him of what had just occurred; Lewis was astounded. Avner, who took careful notes of the conversation, recalls that Begin asked Lewis to brief President Reagan, in response to which Lewis asked delicately, “Are you sure there’s nothing else you want me to convey to the president?” as if Lewis knew that the president’s response was going to be negative in the extreme.
At 5:00 pm, the members of the cabinet gathered at the prime minister’s residence. Upon seeing one another, they realized that they were there for some purpose other than what they had initially assumed. Within minutes they were all in the know. Begin asked Avner to read the draft communiqué to the group assembled. Yosef Burg, minister of the interior and religious affairs, whispered to Avner that the hour was late, and he needed to get to the synagogue where he was scheduled to teach. No communiqué was needed, Burg insisted; the Iraqis were not going to admit the attack, so there was time before the world would find out. It was Shavuot; Jews had matters to attend to. And so, without approving that communiqué or any other, the group dispersed. As the sun set, an unknowing Israel settled into the holiday celebration.
The attack on Osirak, codenamed “Operation Opera,” had been long in the planning. Saddam Hussein had been building the facility, less than twenty kilometers from Baghdad, with the technical assistance of the French government, since 1974. Israeli intelligence, based on information it had gathered in both Iraq and France, believed that the Iraqis would have the ability to create the level of enriched uranium required for a nuclear bomb within five to seven years. Saddam, indeed, did nothing to keep his enterprise a secret.
In 1975, he shared with a Lebanese magazine his intention to construct the first Arab nuclear arms program. The memory of the Holocaust still cast its shadow over Israeli society; when Saddam threatened to “drown” the Jewish state “with rivers of blood,” he virtually invited an Israeli response. Israel’s leaders had long feared they would face a scenario like this. Addressing the subject before the Knesset in 1963, long before he was elected prime minister, Begin’s position had been uncompromising and unrelenting: “Don’t even ask whether unconventional weapons are a greater threat to our future than conventional weapons—in my mind, there is no doubt regarding the answer. The greatest and gravest threat we can anticipate: to our future, our security, our existence, is from unconventional weapons.” When he was finally elected, just as concerns about the Iraqi program began to deepen, Begin knew that it was up to him to block Saddam’s developing genocidal capability. He began to insist that action be taken against what he called “the bloodiest and most irresponsible of all Arab regimes, with the exception of Kaddafi in Libya.” He had grown up knowing well what it meant to live or die at the whim of others, and insisted, “No nation can live on borrowed time.” At the end of August 1978, the prime minister began the first of dozens of secret cabinet meetings to determine the appropriate course of action.
Several months later, in the dead of night on April 6, 1979, several core reactors waiting to be shipped to Iraq from the docks of La Seyne-sur-Mer (near Toulon) were detonated and severely damaged. Someone claiming to be a member of the “French Ecological Group” phoned Le Monde and assumed responsibility for the detonation; but the group was apparently fictitious and the French assumed it to be the work of “Mideast Agents” or, in simpler terms, the Mossad. A year later, in June 1980, the Egyptian nuclear scientist Yahya El Mashad, who had been contracted to work for the Iraqis, was killed. That, too, was suspected as a Mossad hit. But these hits merely slowed the construction of Osirak, and only temporarily. Work on the reactor continued to progress.
By October 1980, Begin won standby approval from his cabinet for a military operation on the condition that an “inner committee” consisting of the prime minister, Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, and Chief of Staff Eitan signed off. This “inner committee” invited a series of intelligence and military officials to make presentations regarding a possible military strike. Deep differences of opinion quickly emerged. Some of the experts argued that, at best, a strike on the reactor would set back Iraq’s nuclear program only by several years. Some worried that the strike would tempt the Egyptians to pull out of the newly signed peace treaty. Still others feared that an attack would ruin relations with France, which had taken the most active role in building the Osirak plant, and “remained unmoved by … dramatic descriptions of the Holocaust” that Israeli officials presented.
More disconcerting to many, however, was the potential impact a strike might have on relations with the United States. Even as late as 1980, the State Department continued to claim that there was “no hard evidence that Iraq has decided to acquire nuclear explosives.” Ronald Reagan, interested in protecting his broader interests in the Arab Middle East, might well condemn and isolate Israel following an attack. But Begin remained undeterred and his committee secretly devised their strategy. Operation Opera called for two squadrons of Israeli fighters that would take off from the Etzion base in the Sinai Peninsula (which had not yet been returned to Egypt) and fly across Jordanian and Saudi Arabian airspace on their way to Iraq. The reactor would be bombed prior to its completion specifically to eliminate the risk of nuclear contamination and thus to diminish any justification for a counterattack.
It sounded simple, but Begin and his team knew that the operation was treacherously dangerous. The pilots would be flying more than 1,200 miles across enemy territory, dangerously low and close to the ground to avoid radar. The mission clearly meant risking the pilots’ lives; yet failure, as far as Begin was concerned, meant risking the future of the Jewish people. Making reference to the then well-known novel The Clock Overhead by the Auschwitz survivor Yechiel De-Nur, who went by the pen name “Ka-Tzetnik” (the name used by Germans to denote “concentration camp prisoner”), Begin said in one meeting, “A giant clock hangs above our head, and it is ticking.”
Shimon Peres, head of the political opposition and the primary challenger to Begin in the looming elections, questioned the wisdom of a preemptive strike from the very outset. Begin met with him in December 1980 to inform him that such an operation was being considered, but Peres remained unconvinced of its necessity, and Begin did not share with Peres the details of Operation Opera. When Peres found out that the plan was actually scheduled, apparently through Dr. Uzi Even, a member of Israel’s Atomic Energy Committee, Peres sent a direct letter to the prime minister minister voicing his vehement objection to the planned operation:
At the end of December 1980, you [Begin] called me into your office in Jerusalem and told me about a certain extremely serious matter. You did not solicit my response and I myself (despite my instinctive feeling) did not respond under the given circumstances. I feel this morning, however, that it is my supreme civic duty to advise you, after serious consideration, and in weighing the national interest, to desist from this thing. I speak as a man of experience. The deadlines reported by us (and I well understand our people’s anxiety) are not realistic. Materials can be changed for other materials. And what is meant to prevent [disaster] can become a catalyst [for disaster]. Israel would then be like a thistle in the desert. I am not alone in saying this, and certainly not at the present time under the given circumstances.
The fact that Peres knew about the attack meant that information had been leaked, and Begin refused to either risk the operation or the lives of the pilots. As he would later explain to Max Fisher, a leading philanthropist and American Jewish communal leader, he was consumed by the risks of failure and, at the same time, the risks of not risking it:
…for months I had sleepless nights. Day after day I asked myself: to do or not to do? What would become of our children if I did nothing? And what would become of our pilots if I did something?
It was not only Begin who kept silent. Everyone involved—from the inner committee to the Air Force grounds crews—was expected to keep the operation an absolute secret. Yitzhak Shamir’s son, Yair, who had been an Air Force pilot and, in 1981, responsible for the IAF’s test-flight program, was involved in planning the attack. He recalled years later that his father, who was part of Begin’s inner committee, would call him in the period before the attack, asking about refueling, how far planes could fly, and the like. The younger Shamir knew that his father must have been aware that plans for an attack were being formulated. Yitzhak could not inform Yair, however, because he’d been sworn to secrecy; the son, at the same time, could not tell his father that he, too, was working on the very same plans. Father and son kept everything from each other; the blanket of secrecy was impenetrable.
Begin may have had his sleepless nights, but at his core, he had no doubt as to what had to be done. On several occasions he warned Samuel Lewis that “either the U.S. does something to stop this reactor or we shall have to.” He did not relish what he suspected might be the world’s reaction; but his own life story convinced him that inaction was infinitely more dangerous. “Better condemnation without a reactor than a reactor without condemnation,” he said.
On June 7, 1981, the pilots took off from the Sinai Desert and streaked east toward Iraq.
The F-16 pilots selected for the mission were among Israel’s best. Months of intensive practice had preceded the attack. Three pilots, including the son of Chief of Staff Eitan, perished during trial runs. Led by Ze’ev Raz, the squadron included Amos Yadlin, who retired as a major general and would later become the head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, Amir Nachumi, Yiftach Spector, Relik Shapir, Chagai Katz, Dobbi Yaffe, and Ilan Ramon. Ramon, later Israel’s first astronaut (who was aboard the space shuttle Columbia mission that disintegrated upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere on February 1, 2003), was not only the youngest of the pilots, but was flying his first mission.
Like several of the others, Ramon was the son and grandson of Holocaust survivors; still unmarried, he was assigned to pilot the eighth and final plane, the riskiest position in the squadron, since if he were killed, no woman would be left widowed. But none of the pilots died. With the mission a success, the reactor was destroyed and Israel now had the “Begin Docrine,” a principle which asserted that no enemy of the Jewish state would be allowed to acquire a weapon of mass destruction.
Where does that leave us with Iran? It is on that subject that we will hear Chuck Freilich later this week.
Text above based on the account in my biography of Menachem Begin, Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul.
With Iran and the possible renewal of the JCPOA back in the news, we turned to Chuck Freilich, a noted author, scholar and former deputy national security adviser in Israel, to ask him about the threat. Is the threat real? Is there anything Israel can do? Is there anything Israel should do?
What Freilich thinks Israel should do will surprise you.
The full conversation about Iraq and more is being made available on Wednesday for paid subscribers to Israel from the Inside.
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