Political fallout from Israeli strike on Baghdad reactor spread around the globe; Israel unrepentant over its air raid on Iraq
Amid a chorus of world condemnation, Israel is defiantly justifying its June 7 raid on the Iraqi nuclear complex outside Baghdad. In sonorous tones Prime Minister Menachem Begin told a packed press conference June 9 that "despite all the condemnations heaped on Israel in th last 24 hours, Israel has nothing to apologize for." He said that he had to take this action to ensure that his people would not be destroyed.
Israel appears to be mounting a massive information campaign to convince the world that its decision was not only right, but a benefit to other countries. Mr. Begin told his audience, "I hope in the days to come, all men and women of goodwill will understand our motives."
He repeated that Israel had no choice but to strike now, before the reactor became operational in one-to-three months, when it would have exposed Baghdad to heavy radiation if hit.
This claim was upheld by Swiss nuclear expert Theodore Winkler of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, who was interviewed repeatedly on Israeli radio and on the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Mr. Begin said Israel "faced a terrible dilemma" about whether to act now against the reactor, but decided to move before it was too late. He said the mission, which sources here say was planned as early as last october, had been postponed several times.
Mr. Begin implied that sould Iraq rebuild its reactor, Israel would hit it again. He said that Israel would not permit "any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against the people of Israel."
However, Maj. Gen. David Ivri, chief of the Israeli Air Force, said at the press conference that it was impossible to compare the Iraqi operation with a hypothetical strike against Syrian missiles in Lebanon.
Within Israel there was agreement across the political spectrum that Israel could not permit atom bombs to fall into the hands of Arab enemies. There was also quiet exhilaration among the public at Israel's successful execution of a complicated mission. This pride was reflected by General Ivri when he said that the mission had been executed so well "that the debriefing was rather boring."
Sources within the opposition Labor Party hinted that the timing of the strike might have been connected with coming parliamentary elections on June 30. But these charges are not being aired publicly lest the government label them unpatriotic.
Opposition Labor leader Shimon Peres would express only his admiration for the "brilliant execution" by Israel's Army and Air Force.
Shocked American reaction to the raid has not yet aroused much concern here. A State Department spokesman "condemned" the raid in a statement that was supposedly cleared by President Ronald Reagan. But Israeli press reports claim that privately some administration officials -- including Pentagon men -- are not unhappy the reactor was destroyed.
Both the US spokesman and Mr. Begin emphasized that the United States did not know of the raid beforehand. The US spokesman said that Israel might have violated US law by using American-made planes for offensive purposes. He said a report on this would be sent to Congress "fairly quickly." The Israelis argue that they acted in self-defense, thus violating no US law.
The argument of self-defense was also used by Israeli United Nations Ambassador Yehuda Blum in rejecting a call by Iraq for a special session of the Security Council and criticism of the raid by UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.
Blum called for a "nuclear free zone" in the Middle East but did not say how this would affect Israel's reported nuclear capability.
Mr. Begin said that he had sent a private letter to President Reagan explaining israel's actions. Mr. Begin said he had also written to President Sadat and hoped he would understand.
When asked whether he thought world condemnations reflect the true feelings of those governments, Mr. Begin replied, "I believe the nations are with us, and if several governments condemn us, . . . what can we do?"
Some Israeli sources believe the American administration might try to "teach Mr. Begin a lesson" after this incident, which embarrassed special US envoy Philip C. Habib, who was about to resume his mission to solve the Lebanese crisis.
When he was asked why Israel had not retified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Mr. Begin said, "We are prepared to sign if the Arab countries around us make peace." He repeated israel's pledge that it would never be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.