WASHINGTON — When Israel’s Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, accompanied by Ambassador David Ivry, recently visited the Oval Office, President Bush remarked that Israel certainly has the right ambassador for the moment. He said this because Ivry has shown that he understands how preventive action is pertinent to the problem of weapons of mass destruction in dangerous hands. Bush’s remark, pregnant with implications, revealed that the president as well as the vice president remembers and admires a bold Israeli action for which Israel was roundly condemned 20 years ago.
On the afternoon of June 7, 1981, Jordan’s King Hussein, yachting in the Gulf of Aqaba, saw eight low-flying Israeli F-16s roar eastward. He called military headquarters in Amman for information, but got none. The aircraft had flown below Jordanian radar. So far, so good for Ivry’s mission, code-named Opera.
Ivry, a short, balding grandfatherly figure with a gray moustache, was then commander of Israel’s air force, which had acquired some of the 75 F-16s ordered by Iran from the United States but not delivered because of the 1979 revolution that toppled the shah. The F-16s were to be tested to their limits when Israel learned that Iraq was about to receive a shipment of enriched uranium for its reactor near Baghdad — enough uranium to build four or five Hiroshima-size bombs.
The reactor was 600 miles from Israel. Ensuring that the F-16s had the range to return to base required the dangerous expedient of topping off the fuel tanks on the runway, while the engines were running. Measures were taken to reduce the air drag of the planes’ communications pods and munitions racks.
Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the attack to occur before the uranium arrived and the reactor went "hot," at which point bombing would have scattered radioactive waste over Baghdad. The raid was scheduled for a Sunday, to minimize casualties. It was executed perfectly. Aren’t we glad. Now.
The raid probably was not Israel’s first pre-emptive act against Iraq’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. In April 1979, unidentified saboteurs blew up reactor parts at a French port, parts awaiting shipment to Iraq. In August 1980 an Egyptian-born nuclear physicist important to Iraq’s nuclear program was killed in his Paris hotel room.
The U.S. State Department said Israel’s destruction of the reactor jeopardized the "peace process" of the day, said relations with Israel were being "reassessed," canceled meetings with Israeli officials and suspended deliveries of military equipment, including F-16s, pending a decision about whether Israel had violated the restriction that weapons obtained from America could be used only for defensive purposes. The New York Times said Israel had embraced "the code of terror" and that the raid was "inexcusable and short-sighted aggression." The Times added this remarkable thought:
"Even assuming that Iraq was hellbent to divert enriched uranium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, it would have been working toward a capacity that Israel itself acquired long ago. Contrary to its official assertion, therefore, Israel was not in ‘mortal danger’ of being outgunned. It faced a potential danger of losing its Middle East nuclear monopoly, of being deterred one day from the use of atomic weapons in war."
The Times was sarcastic about fear of Saddam Hussein ("even assuming … hellbent") and sanguine about his acquiring nuclear weapons which would deter Israel from using such weapons. But 10 years later Americans had reason to be thankful for Israel’s muscular unilateralism in 1981.
Today on Ivry’s embassy office wall there is a large black-and-white photograph taken by satellite 10 years after the raid, at the time of the Gulf War. It shows the wreckage of the huge reactor complex, which is still surrounded by a high, thick wall that was supposed to protect it. Trees are growing where the reactor dome had been.
The picture has this handwritten inscription. "For Gen. David Ivry, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981 — which made our job much easier in Desert Storm." The author of the inscription signed it: "Dick Cheney, Sec. of Defense 1989-93."
Were it not for Israel’s raid, Iraq probably would have had nuclear weapons in 1991 and there would have been no Desert Storm. The fact that Bush and Cheney are keenly appreciative of what Ivry and Israel’s air force accomplished is welcome evidence of two things:
In spite of the secretary of state’s coalition fetish, the administration understands the role of robust unilateralism. And neither lawyers citing "international law" nor diplomats invoking "world opinion" will prevent America from acting as Israel did, pre-emptively in self-defense.
George Will can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200.