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Israeli raid -- 'least costly option'?

Israel's destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor Osirak leaves unanswered the long-term question of how to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. Israel claims it acted in self-defense because Iraq aimed to produce nuclear weapons. But the Israelis acknowledge that the solution they achieved is only short term.

Iraq insists its "scientific progress" will continue. But Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin says Israel would strike again to prevent an enemy from producing such weapons. This has raised the question whether force is the only way to forestall a nuclear race in this region.

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Israel itself has long been reputed -- though never confirmed -- to have nuclear weapons, or at least the capacity to assemble them quickly. Israel has never ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, saying that the Arab countries around it must first make peace.

Israel has pledged never to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East. But many Israeli strategists believe that the Arab perception that Israel has the weapon, and would use it as a last resort, limits their actions.

Israel's supposed possession of nuclear weapons has inevitably challenged some Arab regimes to compete. For the first time, this week, Israel made it clear that it will resort to preemptive military strikes to prevent such a development.

This has raised some Western accusations that Israel is concerned less with self-defense than with protection of its nuclear monopoly. However, the Israelis insist that comparing the East-West nuclear balance with the Israeli-Arab rivalry is misleading. "here the issue is the refusal of the Arabs to accept Israel's right to exist," says Shlomo Aronson, Hebrew University professor of political science.

Once France and Italy had agreed to build nuclear facilities in Iraq, a debate simmered here over how to confront the arrival of "the Muslim bomb." Iraq was expected to have nuclear weapons by the mid-1980s; Libya, whose leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi tried unsuccessfully to buy a nuclear bomb from China, was a more distant threat. Muslim Pakistan, reportedly funded in part by Qaddafi and on the verge of producing nuclear weapons, was another.

A few Israeli experts advocated "living with" the Arab bomb, speculating that this might inject a new sense of responsibility into regional leaders and conserve Israeli defense budgets by enabling a pullback from staggering competition in conventional arms.

However, this theory, never widespread before the raid, is less so today. This is primarily because the Israelis believe that certain Arab leaders like Qaddafi or even Saddam Hussein of Iraq might risk using nuclear weapons for "crazy" reasons aimed at Israel's demise. Says Prof. Yair Evron of Tel Aviv University's Center for Strategic Studies, "On balance Israeli's attack may have been its least costly option, not only from a narrow strategic concept but also for the stability of the Middle East."

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What nonmilitary means can be used to prevent future nuclear proliferation in the Arab world is now being debated here. One suggestion is pressuring Western governments hot to aid Arab nuclar programs. The opposition Labor Party has chastised Prime Minister Begin for not waiting to talk with new French Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. The Paris daily France Soir wrote June 11 that France will no longer provide weapons-grade uranium to Iraq, but will deliver only a far lower-grade fuel. Israel had tried in vain to dissuade the previous French regime -- and the Italians -- from aiding Iraq's nuclear program.

Others have suggested that Israel resort to "delaying tactics," a veiled reference to the series of mysterious accidents which befell the Iraqi reactor, delaying its completion.

However, the Israeli government stresses the need for Western nations to focus on nuclear proliferation dangers in the region. Israeli analysts here insist the supervision called for by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is no longer adequate. Says Professor Evron, "The inspectors are thinking in terms of large weapons inventories . . . But even one bomb would have created a new situation in the Middle East."

The Israelis say it is too easy for a third world nation purchasing nuclear technology from the West or elsewhere to develop a military nuclear capability. They say there is an almost "free market" in the world for natural uranium.

"In the future there will have to be a much more elaborate system of international supervision, agreements by the big powers on limitations, and much more intervention by them," says Professor Evron. "Whether this is politically feasible is another question."

If there is world pressure to tighten controls on nuclear proliferation, Israel may be challenged to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Israel itself has suggested a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. When asked if he would open up Israeli nuclear facilities to inspection should such a zone become feasible, Prime Minister Begin replied, "Words, words, words. We wa nt deeds, deeds, deeds."

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