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Telling Israel's Secrets : FIRST STRIKE The Exclusive Story of How Israel Foiled Iraq's Attempt to Get the Bomb by Shlomo Nakdimon, translated by Peretz Kidron (Summit Books: $18.95; 353 pp.) : ISRAEL UNDERCOVER Secret Warfare and Hidden Diplomacy in the Middle East by Steve Posner (Syracuse University Press: $17.95; 325 pp.) :

October 18, 1987|Benny Morris | Morris, the diplomatic correspondent of the Jerusalem Post, is the author of "The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947-1949" (forthcoming, Cambridge University Press)

Almost invariably, open wars and negotiations between hostile states are punctuated by a "gray" substratum of covert activity--special operations, espionage and secret contacts. The Middle East conflict is no exception.

Shlomo Nakdimon and Steve Posner have set out to lift the veil and reveal a little of what has gone on behind the scenes since 1967 in what is arguably the world's most troubled and explosive region.

Nakdimon, a veteran Israeli journalist, zeroes in on one major special operation--the Israel Air Force destruction on June 7, 1981, of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at al Tuweitha, outside Baghdad. He reviews the history of Iraq's acquisition of the Osiris (renamed Osirak or Tammuz) reactor from France; the protracted, abortive Israeli diplomatic struggle against the deal; the decision-making processes that led to the dispatch of the eight F-16s and six F-15s that turned the reactor into dust; and the diplomatic aftermath, in which Jerusalem battled successfully, mainly in Washington, to avert major negative political fallout in the wake of the bombing.

Posner takes the broader canvas, looking successively at Israeli espionage and diplomacy in Lebanon during the 1970s and "its impact on the Israeli-Egyptian peace process"; at secret Israeli-Jordanian contacts and diplomacy between 1967 and 1987, and at American and Israeli maneuvering in Lebanon in the runup to the 1982 Israel Defense Forces (IDF) invasion.

The bombing of the reactor--which was universally admired for its daring and accuracy in planning and execution--at the time sparked a major debate within Israel, as well as a rather bitter if brief spat with the United States.

The strike was opposed by the heads of Israel's two main intelligence bodies, the IDF Intelligence Branch and the Mossad, and by the opposition Labor Party. It was argued in Israel and, subsequently, by the United States that there was no certainty that the Iraqis had nuclear weapons in mind when purchasing and constructing the reactor complex and that, in any case, the Iraqis were still years away from a bomb-producing capability, if indeed that was their objective. Bombing the reactor, it was feared, would invite universal condemnation, Arab retaliation and a rift with the United States, and could torpedo the ongoing Israeli-Egyptian peace process. Lastly, it was argued, bombing Arab nuclear reactors would not solve the long-term threat posed by the coupling of Arab enmity with nuclear bomb-making capabilities--only peace could do that.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin, however, thought and gambled otherwise. Throughout, Begin had in his mind's eye--and Nakdimon drives this point home persuasively--the memory of the 6 million Jews, who included his father and mother and 1.5 million children, slaughtered in the Holocaust in Europe. The strike on al Tuweitha was designed, as Begin wrote to "Dear Ron," to prevent "a new Holocaust." And Begin cogently argued that if Israel delayed, the reactor would go "hot" and an air strike then would unleash a lethal radioactive cloud over the Iraqi capital, killing thousands. (As it was, seven or eight Iraqis and one Frenchman died in the raid.)

Nakdimon makes no effort to hide his own views. He devotes long pages to describing Iraq's then and current dictator, Saddam Hussein, as a mad dog ("the butcher of Baghdad," "a murderous octopus") who would stop at nothing to destroy Israel and who was hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons for this purpose. Nakdimon's condemnation of France's leaders for uncaringly selling the nuclear bomb-making capability to Saddam is only slightly less vehement.

The author devotes no space at all to discussing the profound political, military and perhaps also ethical question of Israel's own nuclear arsenal, a matter currently highlighted in the Vanunu trial in Jerusalem. The matter comes up only in passing when Nakdimon explains that the Arabs justify their drive to acquire such weapons on the grounds that Israel already possesses them.

Nakdimon, who was Begin's press secretary during 1978-80, rather contemptuously dismisses Labor's charge at the time that the air strike, which took place a bare month before the July 1981 Israeli general elections, was primarily an electioneering gimmick. The author throughout signals his admiration for the prime minister (who exactly one year later was to lead Israel into the Lebanese quagmire).

Nakdimon obviously had access to the minutes of cabinet and other policy-making meetings, from which he quotes or paraphrases liberally (and these are the most interesting passages in the book). But there are no references, so a great deal must be taken on trust.

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