On June 7, 1981 four Israeli F-16 jets took off for their secret mission known as Operation Opera, also called Operation Babylon. They flew almost 600 miles at ground level to avoid radar detection from the Jordanians, Saudis, and the Iraqis. At precisely 6:30 PM they rose to make their pass and all four pilots hit their target, the Osirak Nuclear reactor, and destroyed it completely.
All four pilots made it back safely. One of the four pilots, Ilan Ramon participated in the space shuttle Columbia mission that ended tragically in February, 2003 when a re-entry accident killed Ramon and the shuttle crew.
The mission was a risky one. To make the round trip the planes had to shed weight and fly the entire mission by manual controls. To be sure they had enough fuel to make the round trip they topped off the tanks at the end of the runway, with the plane running, a very risky trick. The attack was timed precisely to minimize casualties and detection. It was the culmination of years of planning and intelligence.
Menachem Begin picked the moment he did because Israeli intelligence learned that the plant was about to go live. If they waited to attack, they risked radioactive infection to the Baghdad civilian population.
Begin had lost his family in the holocaust. He understood from the decimation of his people in Europe that he as the leader of the Israelis could trust the security of his country to no one but the Israelis themselves. His most important consideration was to avoid any risk of a second holocaust.
The world was shocked and dismayed by the attack, and Reagan and his cabinet was especially distraught that Israel had undertaken the mission without any communication from their ally.
According to Yehuda Avner in The Prime Ministers, Begin had shared his security assessment of the Osirak reaction with Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter. The information was given such tight security clearance, that no one briefed the incoming president or his security detail on the threat. Perhaps Reagan either neglected the seriousness of this security detail, or failed to absorb the transitional information, as one Carter insider suggested.
Furthermore Begin did not want to place Reagan in position with other nations in the Middle East that would have indicated that he had approved or participated in the decision. Begin possibly did not yet trust Reagan and his team to keep the mission confidential.
While soundly criticized by nearly everyone for his attack, the decision was later appreciated when we faced the Iraqi forces in Desert Storm and liberated Kuwait from Iraq. While many blamed Israel for its ‘uncivil’ act, few ever criticized the ‘uncivil’ act of France for supplying Iraq with the nuclear reactor to begin with.
Thirty years later Israel faces a similar threat from Iran. If and how Israel will respond is yet to be played out. The element of surprise will be much harder to execute. Missions such as the Six Day War and the raid on Osirak are not easy to repeat.
Yet, I would be slow to question the resolve of Netanyahu and his new unified government. His mission to avert another holocaust is as clear as it was to Menachem Begin.
Much but not all of the above taken from The Prime Ministers by Yehuda Avner. Some of the details of the attack were taken from The Raid on the Sun by Roger Claire, an excellent detail of the attack, and the background that led to it.