WASHINGTON — Two decades after Israeli warplanes destroyed Iraq's only nuclear reactor, the air force general who commanded the raid has disclosed that Israel's intelligence community had fought the mission, arguing that it was too risky.
In a rare interview marking the 20th anniversary of the June 1981 precision bombing, David Ivry said the intelligence chiefs believed that the raid was unlikely to succeed--and that even if it did, it would retard Iraq's nuclear weapons program by no more than five years.
But, according to Ivry's account, then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin overrode the objections of the intelligence agencies--an unusual step in a country where spies enjoy tremendous prestige--because he had concluded that Iraq was poised to produce a nuclear bomb and that no other country would stop it.
Most of the details of the raid's planning and execution were classified as state secrets by the Israeli government. But Ivry, currently Israel's ambassador to the United States, said he now feels free to address some of those matters, including the political and technological obstacles that had to be overcome.
Coming less than five years after the daring Israeli rescue of more than 100 hostages aboard a hijacked plane at Uganda's Entebbe Airport and the Carter administration's failed attempt to rescue 52 hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Baghdad raid inflated the near-mythical reputation of the Israeli military. But lately, with Israel's F-16 bombing raids on Palestinian cities, the heroic atmosphere has been fading.
Reverberations Felt in Persian Gulf War
Ivry said the 1981 attack contributed to the restraint that Israel showed during the 1991 Persian Gulf War when it came under attack by Saddam Hussein's Scud missiles. The United States, fearing that Israeli participation would destroy the precarious U.S.-Arab coalition fighting Iraq, pleaded with Israel to stay on the sidelines.
The decision to forgo retaliation was not popular in Israel. But Ivry said the restraint was possible only because the country had demonstrated a decade earlier that it could attack Baghdad if it wished.
"Once we did it, it wasn't a question of whether the Israeli air force could do it," he said. "We knew we could. It was just a political question of yes or no."
Ivry said the 1981 raid faced a daunting array of challenges: Internal Israeli politics. Certain international condemnation. Concern about the fuel capacity of the F-16 jets--so limited, it seemed to put the Baghdad plant out of range.
In the immediate aftermath of the raid, Begin and other Israeli officials focused on the successful destruction of the nuclear facility and sought to deflect charges that the raid violated international law.
Planning for the attack began in 1978, shortly after Begin took office, Ivry said. Information was extremely closely held. Begin briefed members of his Cabinet and the top military leadership. In the air force, only Ivry, the pilots and support personnel involved in the attack were told.
Even so, Shimon Peres, now Israel's foreign minister but then leader of the parliamentary opposition, found out about the plan. Ivry said Peres objected strongly in a private meeting with Begin, delaying the operation for almost a month.
On May 10, with the aircraft already loaded with fuel and bombs, Peres protested again to Begin's office--demanding that the raid be called off.
"We stopped them on the runway," Ivry said of the warplanes.
Eventually, Peres was persuaded to keep the government's secret and issue no public protest. That allowed the raid to proceed.
Begin had insisted on unanimous support from his coalition Cabinet before he would go ahead, and Ivry said it took several months to get all of the Cabinet officials on board.
Some, such as retired general and Housing Minister Ariel Sharon, now Israel's hard-line prime minister, signed on at once. But others held out. Yigael Yadin, then deputy prime minister, was the last to be convinced. Yadin, an internationally renowned archeologist, was the commander of the Haganah militia that fought Israel's War of Independence and was the second army chief of staff of the Israeli state.
But the political problems were mild compared with the technological difficulties, Ivry said.
Most daunting was the distance to the target: about 560 miles, almost all of it over hostile Arab territory. Theoretically, the U.S.-made F-16 has a combat radius of about 575 miles, meaning the distance it can travel to the target and back on one load of fuel.
There would be virtually no margin for an emergency and no reserves to permit the planes to linger over the target.
Aerial refueling was out of the question, Ivry said, because tanker planes could not be expected to operate over hostile territory.