Sixteen years ago, on June 7, 1981, Israeli fighter-bombers destroyed the Osiraq nuclear reactor shortly before it was ready to go "on line." At the time, the general global community reaction was overwhelmingly hostile. Even the UN Security Council, in Resolution 487 of June 19, 1981, indicated that it "strongly condemns" the attack and that "Iraq is entitled to appropriate redress for the destruction it has suffered."
Looking back at this event more than a decade and a half later, Israel's defensive action looks very different. As is now well-known, Saddam Hussein's plans to build a French-supplied reactor at his nuclear research center at Tuwaitha, about 20 kilometers from Baghdad, were designed to produce militarily significant amounts of plutonium. The ultimate objective was to manufacture nuclear weapons that could provide Saddam with regional hegemony - a position that would be expressed by Iraq's aiming at a postage-stamp sized target called Israel. Significantly, an Iraqi dictatorship with nuclear weapons would have had far-reaching global implications, affecting not only the "infidel" Jewish State, but also the security of those other states requiring Middle Eastern oil and/or those states that came to be engaged in the 1991 Gulf War.
Did Israel act illegally at Osiraq? International law is not a suicide pact! 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." Indeed, this right is especially compelling today, when--in an age of mass destruction weaponry--failing to preempt may bring about annihilation or create a world of international political/criminal extortion by renegade states or terrorist groups.
Did Israel commit aggression at Osiraq? Iraq has always insisted that a state of war exists with "the Zionist entity." It follows that since aggression cannot be committed against a state with which a country is already at war, Jerusalem could not possibly have been guilty of such a "crime against peace."
Did Israel violate the laws of war of international law at Osiraq? Fourteen Israeli 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 civilian casualties and before any radiation danger existed. Unlike Iraq's thirty-nine SCUD attacks on Israel during the Gulf War, which were expressly designed to harm innocent civilians, Israel's raid on Osiraq was conceived for essential protection of civilians.
Ever since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Iraq has 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, Iraq has always steadfastly insisted upon a permanent state of hostilities.
All things considered, Israel's defensive strike against an outlaw enemy state preparing for extermination warfare was not only lawful, but distinctly law enforcing. In the absence of a centralized enforcement capability, international law relies upon the willingness of individual states to act on behalf of the entire global community. This is exactly what took place sixteen years ago, when--with surgical precision--Israel's fighter-bombers precluded an Iraqi nuclear option. Today, when waiting to absorb a "first shot" could sentence a tiny state like Israel to obliteration, the legitimacy of anticipatory self-defense should be more widely acknowledged.
No less than Israel's citizens, both Jews and Arabs, American and other coalition soldiers who fought in the Gulf War may owe their lives to Israel's courage, skill and foresight in June 1981. Had it not been for the brilliant raid at Osiraq, Saddam's forces might have been equipped with atomic warheads in 1991. Ironically, the Saudis, too, are in Jerusalem's debt. Had it not been for Prime Minister Begin's resolve to protect his own people back in 1981, Saddam's SCUDs falling on Saudi Arabia might have spawned immense casualties and lethal irradiation.
With these facts in mind, one thing is certain. It is time for the world community generally, and the United Nations in particular, to acknowledge the obvious: Israeli preemptive action in 1981 was not a violation of civilized international peace and security, but an heroic and indispensable act of law enforcement. For the sake of decency and future instances of law-enforcing self help in world affairs, let's hope this acknowledgement is not too long in coming. Regarding future essential resorts to anticipatory self-defense, whether by Israel or by any other state facing unconventional aggression, such an acknowledgment could provide an important incentive to do what is needed to save human lives within the bounds of international law. Presently, regional and world security are especially endangered by the ongoing Russian military commerce with Iran - an ominous transfer of unconventional weapons know-how and infrastructure that is rapidly advancing Iranian efforts to acquire thermonuclear weapons. Russia is also known to be working with Iran on development of long-range ballistic missiles and is now transferring 2000 km-range SS-4 ballistic missile technology to that country. This Russian assistance which threatens Israeli survival directly contravenes both the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and official Moscow pledges to abide by the Missile Technology Control Regime.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, the time has come for a strengthened commitment to self-defense rights in world affairs, legal rights designed to prevent aggression in an increasingly anarchic world and to assure national survival. Israel acted in support of these essential rights both in June 1981, and also back in June 1967. No less than the required attack on Osiraq, the Six Day War was a clear-cut example of anticipatory self-defense. Launched by Israel because both the United States and the United Nations had reneged on their formal obligations of 1957 (guarantees extended to Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from Sinai), the June 1967 War demonstrated the continuing imperatives of national self-help in a very bad neighborhood.
LOUIS RENE BERES (Ph.D. Princeton) is the author of fourteen books and many articles dealing with international law. His work is well-known to the Prime Minister of Israel and to senior Government and military officials.
YOASH TSIDDON-CHATTO, a Member of the 12TH Knesset and a Colonel (Res.) in the Israel Defense Forces, was Chief of Air Force R & D and Planning in the Israel Air Force. He is a graduate of the Ecole Superieure de Guerre Aerienne, Paris, and was a member of the First Israeli Peace Mission to Madrid in 1991.