- The Washington Times - Friday, September 24, 2004

TEL AVIV — Moments before dispatching Israeli pilots to bomb Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981, army Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan is said to have depicted the importance of the mission in stark terms: “The alternative is our destruction.”

In ordering the lightning knockout, Israel served notice to its Middle Eastern foes that the Jewish state would act — even pre-emptively — to deprive them of a nuclear option.

Two decades later, the Osirak precedent endures. As the Bush administration steps up its efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program, the possibility of Israel following through on veiled threats to hit Iranian sites remains a wild card.

But several Israeli experts say that the Osirak experience bears little relevance in the case in Iran and that the chances of a repeat strike are very low.

Unlike in the early 1980s when Israel found itself isolated in perceiving a threat from Iraq’s nuclear program, the prospect of U.S.-led multilateral pressure against Iran casts a unilateral strike in a more problematic light.

With National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s recent statement that the United States won’t tolerate a nuclear Iran, Israel is much more likely to act in tandem with its most powerful ally rather than electing to go it alone, analysts say.

“The circumstances are quite different,” said Ephraim Kam, head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University in Ramat Gan, Israel.

“If Israel is going to take any move beyond the diplomatic move, there should be better understanding in the international arena that there is no way to stop the Iranians.”

Tehran concedes it has sought so-called dual-use nuclear technology in order to generate electricity, but denies it intends to build nuclear weapons.

Even the very ability of Israel’s military to repeat the decisive strike achieved at Osirak appears doubtful. While the Iraqi nuclear effort was concentrated at the Osirak plant, nuclear experts say the Iranians have dispersed their program at multiple sites, some of which are hidden underground.

The task of locating all of Iran’s nuclear targets requires a high degree of intelligence and risk.

“I don’t think there’s an option for a pre-emptive act because we’re talking about a different sort of a nuclear program,” said Shmuel Bar, a fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.

“A hit-and-run pre-emptive attack can’t guarantee much success.”

Even so, first-strike offensives have been an essential element of Israel’s defensive doctrine for decades — the most famous instance being the Israeli air force’s destruction of Egyptian air bases to open the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. That approach still influences the Israeli defense establishment.

With Israeli intelligence agencies estimating that Iran will acquire nuclear weaponry by 2007, defense officials on occasion drop hints of a first strike.

Israeli army Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon said in a recent interview with the daily newspaper Yediot Ahronot that Israel “can’t rely on others” in facing the threat from Iran.

The Osirak strike generated a chorus of international condemnation that included then-U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig and then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick. But beyond a temporary halt in F-16 fighter jet shipments from the United States, there was no lasting fallout.

Unlike 1981, the blame for such an attack today would not be limited to Israel.

“Certainly it would be seen as a continuation of what the Americans did in Iraq,” said Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a fellow at the Dayan Center for Middle East and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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