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Analysis: Netanyahu can't fly solo in Israel to attack Iran
Published Monday 06/02/2012 (updated) 07/02/2012 19:01
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a cabinet meeting.
(Reuters/Gali Tibbon, File)
By Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -- Three decades ago, an Israeli prime minister faced his cabinet and invoked the Holocaust in an emotional appeal to approve an air strike against an Arab atomic reactor.

Menachem Begin got the nod, cautioning that a nuclear-armed Iraq under Saddam Hussein would pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state. On June 7, 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed the nuclear facility near Baghdad.

The current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would also need ministerial backing, from his 15-member security cabinet, should he seek to attack Iran, despite Washington's warnings of the risks to the global economy and US regional interests.

Precedents such as the bombing in Iraq and a similar 2007 sortie against Syria, suggest that Netanyahu, fearing for operational secrecy given Israel's talkative political culture, would count on the reduced government forum to represent cross-partisan agreement on any risky mission against Iran.

Much would hinge on whether he would deem striking Iranian nuclear sites an "operation" and thus sidestep a decade-old Israeli law requiring the full cabinet ratify the launching of a war.

"In the State of Israel, any process of a military operation, and any military move, undergoes the approval of the security cabinet and in certain cases, the full cabinet," Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Sunday when asked in an interview how a green-light to attack Iran might be given.

"In any event, the decision is not made by two people, nor three, nor eight," he told Israel's Army Radio on Sunday, alluding to media speculation that Netanyahu might make do with conferring with his defense minister, or with the foreign minister as well, or with his eight-member inner council.

US President Barack Obama, with whom Netanyahu has had a frosty relationship, said on Sunday he did not believe Israel has made a decision on a course of action towards Iran. Washington, Obama said, was not taking any options off the table to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

Tehran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes and has accused Israel, widely believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, of hypocrisy. It has threatened to wipe Israel out and, more recently, to retaliate against US and European sanctions on its finances and oil sales.

In the dark

In 1981, Begin kept both the Knesset plenum and a key parliamentary security panel in the dark about the planned F-16 sneak attack, explaining later that he could not trust lawmakers not to leak details to the media.

The air force chief at the time, David Ivry, said the mission was approved by the security cabinet and then the full cabinet, with all present being asked to sign secrecy contracts.

"First came the approval in principle, and then the detailed discussions and briefings," Ivry told Reuters.

A briefing paper presented to Begin's cabinet ministers by Israeli military intelligence cautioned that Washington might respond to an attack against Iraq by clamping an arms embargo on Israel, according to "Tammuz in Flames," a 1993 book on the operation by Israeli journalist Shlomo Nakdimon, whose manuscript was reviewed by close Begin aides.

But with just one holdout, and over opposition by Israel's Mossad spy chief, the ministers voted in favor of the attack, which destroyed the French-built reactor without the loss of a single Israeli plane.

"The memory of the Holocaust in which six million Jews perished remained before (Begin's) eyes throughout all the discussions," Moshe Nissim, a cabinet minister at the time, wrote in his own book about the strike.

"He underscored the fact that this action was saving thousands of Israeli children from the claws of the Butcher of Baghdad," Nissim wrote.

Israel's official statement on the 1981 air raid spoke of the need to eliminate "an existential threat to the people of Israel," language echoed by Netanyahu, who has said the Holocaust has taught the Jewish state it must not shy from acting alone to thwart any danger to its survival.

The 2007 raid on Syria -- which the United States said targeted a nascent reactor, though Damascus denied having one -- also appears to have been a success, not least as Israel's policy of not discussing the event has since been upheld by those members of the cabinet who were made privy.

The naming on Sunday of a new air force chief, Amir Eshel, has stirred speculation that he would be reluctant to carry out an attack on Iran. Briefing foreign diplomats and reporters last month, Eshel, currently the military's planning chief, said Israel could "an adversary very, very hard" but cannot expect to deliver "knock-outs" should it go to war again.

Ivry said that while the air force chief was not legally empowered to veto a government decision to take military action, in practice he wielded make-or-break sway in the deliberations.

"If you say that it can't be done, that it's too risky or dangerous, then that's a veto, de facto," Ivry said.

Coalition support

As is customary for Israeli premiers, Netanyahu heads a coalition government which commands the majority of Knesset seats. His alliance is dominated by religious and rightist parties which would likely be more accommodating of arguments in favor of preemptively striking Iran's nuclear program.

On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tehran's nuclear program was reaching a stage where atomic facilities would be sheltered against any military attack.

"Those who say 'later' may find that later is too late," Barak said, an indirect reference to the prevailing view in Washington that sanctions on Iran should be given time to work.

To cast the net of consensus further, Netanyahu would almost certainly convene Israel's centrist opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, to notify her of his plans and ask for her support.

Learning of plans for the strike against Iraq's reactor, Shimon Peres, Labour opposition leader at the time and now Israeli president, cautioned Begin that Israel would be isolated internationally, "like a thistle in the desert", if the attack went ahead.

As opposition leader in 2007, Likud party chief Netanyahu was consulted about the Syria strike by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Though Netanyahu's lacks chemistry with Livni, as a former cabinet minister and Mossad spy she would not be viewed as a leak risk.

Three decades ago, Begin took no such chances.

Israeli warplanes were already on their way to Iraq when Begin, who also served as defense minister, summoned his cabinet to his Jerusalem residence. Although the ministers had approved the operation, they had agreed that only Begin, his foreign minister and top generals would decide when to launch the raid.

"Shalom, my friends," Begin told them, according to Nakdimon's account. "At this moment, our planes are approaching Baghdad and the first one will be over the atomic reactor shortly."
1 ) Mohammad / USA
07/02/2012 01:26
Sounds like you want them to attack Iran do we don't get a secound holocaust . It's ok to kill Muslims and christian people so Israel zionest can keep there power . They are the only ones who can have nukes and no one other .may be Iran should bomb israel nukes plant . I think that is a bigger threat.

2 ) Yehuda Solomon / Israel
07/02/2012 03:37
Iran has already enriched uranium to 20% with some of its uranium supply. This is far beyond what would be needed for, say, peaceful use (such as medical use) and is considered the threshold point at which further enrichment of uranium for ultimate possible use in a nuclear bomb is considered very capable of being done. With the Shahab-3 missile outfitted with a nuclear warhead, it would be capable of reaching us and numerous other Arab nations as well. If delivered into the hands of (cont.)

3 ) Julie / USA
07/02/2012 03:53
oh, i'm sorry, i must have landed on a wrong page...for a minute there i could have sworn this was a PALESTINIAN newspaper, but nope, guess NOT !!!!!

4 ) Yehuda Solomon / Iran
07/02/2012 04:01
nations. Logically, this makes sense and we should at least consider it and just might agree to it. So here's the problem: How do you deal with someone who says we should be wiped off the face of the earth as Iranian President Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials have said ??? ... Answer: You can't because the logic cannot co-exist with the illogical. Does Netanyahu understand this ??? ... Does the sun rise in the east ??? ...

5 ) Colin Wright / USA
07/02/2012 05:35
One distinction is that this time, Israel has been publicly threatening to mount such an attack for some time. The United States has the power to veto such an operation, and if it occurs, it will necessarily occur with at least our implicit consent. Therefore, we will bear a portion of the responsibility . In other words, if Israel actually intended to do this, she should have kept quiet about it.

6 ) John / USA
07/02/2012 12:55
3) I wonder of Ma'an Editors even read this Israel-sympathy article before publishing it. Are you guys at Ma'an Palestinians? Shame Shame for publishing such a disgusting article.

7 ) sylvia / uk
07/02/2012 14:55
I think John (6) that this garbage has been copied verbatim from Haaretz.
As you say, shame, shame Maan.

8 ) Tibi / Tubas
07/02/2012 15:03
Israel should NOT have to "Fly solo to attack Iran",
since Iran has threatened many other states, and
Iran poses a threat to the entire world !!!

9 ) Yehuda Solomon / Israel
07/02/2012 17:55
Hezbollah or any of our enemies, it might very well end up as a "dirty" radiation or "suitcase" (explosive) bomb. So the idea has been floated that what's best for the entire Mideast (including us) is for it to be a totally nuclear weapons-free zone. We abolish our nuclear weapons and Iran allows fully transparent and unfettered access to its nuclear facilities with international inspectors (as well as us) verifying that no nuclear bombs are ever built. This goes for all Mideast (cont.)

10 ) Joe Fattal / USA
08/02/2012 01:45
I have said it earlier and a person on the news here in the US said it also. Its dangerous to bomb knowledge. Iran is acquiring the knowledge to build nuclear...whatever. The US and using Israel is after the Iranian knowledge to accomplish a nuclear program even though they can buy nuclear heads ready made from China or Russia. What Israel going to do is take a hell of a chance hoping for them Iran doesn't retaliate. Iran is not Iraq. Iran will retaliate somehow or another.

11 ) sylvia / uk
08/02/2012 19:01
You must be very young or naive - possibly both - No.9 if you can envisage
the day when Israel would give up it's nuclear weapons. Israel is a bully and
bullies do not enter into agreements - their motto is:
"Our way or the highway".

12 ) john h / nz
08/02/2012 23:45
7) No it is not from Haaretz but from reuters and the writers named. But you may well be right, it does appear to be "copied verbatim". Yes, shame, shame.
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