As American and Iranian diplomats attempt to reach a rapprochement that would end the historical enmity between their two governments, Israel is weary of being sidelined by its most important ally. While the U.S. incentive for diplomacy is great, it could place Washington in a short-term conflict of interests with Israel, which views Iran as an existential threat. With the renewed negotiations in place, will Israel dare strike a Middle Eastern nation in defiance of its closest allies? It seems unlikely, but 32 years ago, the answer was yes.
On June 7, 1981, Israel launched Operation Opera. A squadron of fighter planes flew almost 1,000 miles over Saudi and Iraqi territory to bomb a French-built plutonium reactor on the outskirts of Baghdad, which Israeli leaders feared would be used by Saddam Hussein to build atomic bombs.
The operation was successful, but the international reaction was severe. On the morning following the attack, the United States condemned Israel, suggesting it had violated U.S. law by using American-made military equipment in its assault. State Department spokesman Dean Fischer reiterated the American position that the reactor did not pose a potential security threat, and White House press secretary Larry Speakes added that President Ronald Reagan had personally approved the condemnation.
Israel didn't hesitate back then to bomb what it viewed as a threatening nuclear program, even at the risk of provoking a conflict with the United States -- and it will likely not hesitate today. As the strike against Iraq shows, Israeli policymakers see the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a hostile regime as an existential threat, and they will risk a breach with Israel's closest allies to prevent it.
Twelve days after the Israeli strike on Iraq, the U.N. Security Council "strongly condemn[ed]" Israel's attack as a violation of the U.N. Charter and the norms of international conduct. The wording of the resolution was carefully drafted by Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and was unanimously approved by the council.
The Reagan administration, which had entered office less than five months prior, had been caught off guard by Israel's surprise attack. Diplomatic cables from the Israeli Embassy in Washington that week reported a very difficult first few days in defending Israel's actions. Israeli government spokesman Avi Pazner noted that the "fierce [critiques] of Israel were unlike previous reactions to Israeli operations in the past … and were fueled by the negative briefings given by the administration to Washington reporters."
As Pazner suggested, the media response was scathing. The New York Times editorialized on June 9 that Israel's attack "was an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression. Even assuming that Iraq was hellbent to divert enriched uranium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons." The Washington Post stated, "the Israelis have made a grievous error … contrary to their own long-term interests and in a way contrary to American interests as well."
The American public was also largely antagonistic to Israel's attack. Some two weeks after the bombing, a June 19 Gallup poll showed that a plurality of Americans, 45 percent, did not think Israel's strike was justified. In another Gallup survey, conducted one month after the attack, only 35 percent of Americans said they were "more sympathetic to Israel" than to Arab nations. While 57 percent of Americans believed Iraq was planning to make nuclear bombs, only 24 percent thought bombing its reactor was the right thing to do.
The Arab reaction to the raid was vociferous and universal. Iraq's rivals, such as Kuwait, Iran, and Syria, denounced the attack, and Saudi Arabia even offered to finance the construction of a new Iraqi reactor. In Washington, recently declassified CIA estimates predicted that the aggravated Arabs would turn away from the United States and toward the Soviet Union. "Washington's ability to promote Arab cooperation against a Soviet threat or to bring the Arabs and Israelis to the bargaining table has been struck a hard blow," the report warned.
Within Reagan's cabinet, opinions were split. Six years after a major break in U.S.-Israel relations, triggered by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's refusal in 1975 to withdraw from strategic areas in the Sinai, strong voices lobbied the president to teach Israel a lesson. These figures -- including Vice President George H.W. Bush, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, and Chief of Staff James Baker -- were greatly concerned about Israel's offensive use of American fighter jets, in violation of the 1952 military assistance treaty.
On the other side of the table sat Secretary of State Alexander Haig and National Security Advisor Richard Allen, who argued for only a symbolic punishment to placate world opinion.
After several days of discussions, Reagan eventually adjudicated in favor of Israel. He would later write in his memoirs that he was sympathetic to Israel's position and "believed we should give [it] the benefit of the doubt." He directed Kirkpatrick not to condemn Israel itself, but only its "action." The actual punishment was also light -- a delay on the delivery of fighter jets that only lasted a few months.