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'Sorry' seems to be the hardest word, By Louis Rene Beres and Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto 


Time for the US to admit it was wrong to condemn Israel's preemptive attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor 22 years ago

Twenty-two years have now passed since Israeli fighter-bombers destroyed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor shortly before it was ready to go on line. Fourteen aircraft took part in the raid - eight F-16 Falcons, each carrying two 1000-kilogram bombs, and six F-15 Eagles serving as escort planes. The reactor was completely destroyed, without Iraqi civilian casualties and before any radiation danger existed.

The reaction of the international community was overwhelmingly hostile.

The UN Security Council, in Resolution 487 of June 19, 1981, "strongly" condemned the attack, saying that "Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered."

Even the United States issued statements of stern rebuke.

Today, however, following America's vastly broader interpretation of preemptive action in the recent war against Iraq, matters look very different.

Unlike America's extensive and protracted destruction of Iraq's military infrastructure, Israel's 1981 preemptive attack was narrowly focused on a single menacing military target and was carried out in a matter of hours.

America's just-completed war created - cumulatively - thousands of casualties. In contrast, the Israeli raid on Osirak generated a single casualty - a French technician who unexpectedly went to work early on that particular Sunday morning. Moreover, in the absence of Israel's indispensable preemption against a then-developing Iraqi nuclear capability, the United States and its allies would likely have suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the 1991 Gulf War and might never have even had the opportunity to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom 12 years later.

Who can even imagine the death toll of American civilians at the hands of Iraqi-supported nuclear terrorists if Israel had obediently sat on its hands in 1981?

Israel's once controversial defensive action of June 7, 1981, now looks - as it should - manifestly lawful. We now know for certain that Saddam Hussein's plans to build a French-supplied reactor at his nuclear research center at Tuwaitha, about 20 kilometers from Baghdad, were designed exclusively to produce militarily significant amounts of plutonium.

The former head of Saddam's nuclear program, now exiled in London, has said so repeatedly and unambiguously. There was no other purpose: The Iraqi objective was simply to manufacture nuclear weapons that could provide Saddam with regional dominance.

It goes without saying that an Iraqi dictatorship with nuclear weapons would have had fearful implications, affecting not only the "infidel" Jewish State but also the entire Middle East and Iran. In this connection, failure by the international community to prevent Saddam's post-Gulf War efforts to create weapons of mass destruction ultimately forced the United States to undertake Operation Iraqi Freedom.

If only this international community had been willing to replicate Israel's heroic action of June 7, 1981, rather than foolishly to condemn it, President George W. Bush might not have had to resort to full-fledged preemptive war against Iraq in 2003.

INTERNATIONAL LAW is not a suicide pact. Israel did not act illegally at Osirak. Under the long-standing customary right known as anticipatory self-defense, every state is entitled to strike first when the danger posed is instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means and no moment for deliberation.

Ironically, it was the US, not Israel, that issued a unilateral national security policy statement in 2002 declaring that the traditional right of anticipatory self-defense must be broadened to take into account the unique dangers of a nuclear enemy.

Thus Israel did not commit aggression at Osirak. Iraq had always insisted that a state of war existed with "the Zionist entity." As aggression cannot be committed against a state with which a country is already at war, Jerusalem could not possibly have been guilty of a crime against peace.

Ever since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Iraq had been conspiring to destroy it. Baghdad joined several other Arab states which attacked Israel on the day of its declared independence. But while Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria proceeded to sign armistice agreements with the Jewish State in 1949 (and Egypt and Jordan went on to sign actual peace treaties), Iraq steadfastly insisted on a permanent state of hostilities.

In contrast, although Iraq maintained absolutely no formal condition of belligerency with the United States, Washington nonetheless asserted its full legal right to launch a defensive war during March and April of 2003. This is not to suggest that President Bush acted illegally in launching Operation Iraqi Freedom - quite the contrary - but rather to underscore the irony of earlier American condemnations of Israel's more limited preemptive strike against Iraq.

All things considered, Israel's 1981 defensive strike against an enemy rogue state that was preparing for a war of extermination was not only lawful but distinctly law-enforcing. In the absence of a truly centralized enforcement capability, international law always relies upon the willingness of individual states to act on behalf of the entire global community. This was exactly the Bush Administration's correct rationale for Operation Iraqi Freedom, and this is exactly what took place 22 years ago when - with surgical precision and with incomparably meticulous attention to binding rules of armed conflict - Israel's fighter-bombers precluded an Iraqi nuclear option.

With these facts in mind, one thing is certain: It is time for the world community generally, and the US in particular, to acknowledge the obvious - Israeli preemptive action was a heroic and ground-breaking act of international law enforcement.

Following America's Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, which went very far beyond Israel's own narrow 1981 doctrine of anticipatory self-defense, such an acknowledgment could provide an honorable and important incentive to others to do what is needed to save innocent human lives from future threats of aggressive war and mass-destruction terrorism.

Dr. Louis Rene Beres is the author of many books and articles dealing with strategic affairs and international law. Yoash Tsiddon-Chatto is a former MK and was chief of R&D and Planning in the Israel Air Force.

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