Israel continues to operate under the Begin Doctrine, which states that Israel will always do its utmost to prevent the development of nuclear weapons on the part of any other state that poses an existential threat to its people’s existence.
Menachem Begin’s lifelong championship of Israel
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (1913 – 1992, in office 1977 – 1983) defended Israel in numerous ways. Born in what is now Belarus, he led a Polish youth group working in the 1930s to create a Jewish state. He lost his parents and brother to the Nazis, but managed himself to escape to Lithuania. He suffered in a Siberian prison camp after the Soviet Union took him prisoner in 1940, but after being freed a year later, went to pre-state Palestine with the Polish fighting forces in exile.
Begin commanded the militant Irgun fighting force from 1943 up to the year of statehood, in 1948. He went on to lead the Irgun’s political movement as an opposition party in the Knesset. In 1977, as head of the Likud (“Unity”) right-of-center coalition party, he formed a government as prime minister. His landmark negotiations with his Egyptian counterpart, President Anwar el-Sadat, led to the Camp David Accords and the lasting peace treaty between the two nations. The two men were jointly honored with the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.
Far from being the “reluctant peacemaker” he was often portrayed as in American media, Begin knew exactly which lands conquered in war he believed could safely be given back to Egypt, and which could not. He made a bold move for peace while retaining the areas he thought essential to protecting the state.
And it was Begin who laid the foundations for the modernized, well-resourced, high-precision security establishment that continues to work toward national security goals with tireless dedication. Numerous analysts credit Begin with planting the seeds that have grown into trees that now protect every man, woman, and child in the State of Israel.
The Israeli Air Force (IAF) first put the Begin Doctrine to the test in 1981, after Saddam Hussein in Iraq developed the Osirak nuclear reactor. On June 7, after years of strategizing, a group of Israeli fighter jets—in what was known as Operation Opera—flew to Baghdad and did what no one in human history ever had before: They bombed a nuclear reactor.
The Israeli F-15s and F-16s took only a minute and a half to drop multiple charges on the reactor, destroying it completely, before making their successful exit toward home. Their action prevented Hussein—a brutal authoritarian and bitterly anti-Semitic leader then at the height of his power—from developing the nuclear weapons with which he could well have annihilated the Jewish State. The 1980s was the same decade in which Iraq also showed no compunction in using chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war, and poison gas against the Kurds.
Colonel Ilan Ramon flew in the IAF mission against Osirak. He later recalled how his mother, a survivor of Auschwitz, inspired him to risk his life in the daring mission. Knowing firsthand what had happened to the Jews of Europe, he did not want the world’s only sure Jewish safe haven to be destroyed. Ramon, of course, is now remembered as the Israeli astronaut tragically killed aboard the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003.
Operation Outside the Box
On September 6, 2007, the Israelis put the Begin Doctrine into practice once again with Operation Outside the Box. This time, they took out a nuclear reactor in the Syrian desert at Deir ez-Zur, this one built to serve another authoritarian, virulently anti-Israel dictator, Bashar al-Assad. Like Hussein, Assad has deployed chemical weapons, in this case against his own people.
The Israelis had discovered the possible existence of the Syrian reactor a year before. Knowing Syria’s secretive collaboration with North Korea, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence directorate shared their suspicions with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Mossad director Meir Dagan, on the other hand, didn’t think Syria had the technological sophistication to build a reactor. But after Israel hacked the computer of a Syrian official, it was clear that Assad was constructing a reactor modeled on the North Koreans’ installation at Yongbyon.
Once again, Israel was staring a threat to its very existence in the face. And, as was the case in Iraq, Syria’s possession of nuclear capabilities threatened the stability of the entire Mideast.
Destroying a nuclear reactor isn’t for the faint-hearted. These types of preemptive attacks can go wrong at so many points: operationally, strategically, politically, holding the potential to escalate tensions across the region and result in severe blowback on Israel. The Israelis consulted their allies, and at first asked Washington to undertake the mission. President George W. Bush refused, but told Israel he would not stand in its way.
The IAF fighters took off for Syria in the dead of night. The 17 tons of explosives they delivered to the reactor obliterated it.
21st century tactics against Iran
Over the course of more than a decade, Israel has been linked to a dozen or more (some sources say as many as 20) attacks on Iran’s nuclear program. These include delivery of the Stuxnet virus and other cyberattacks, as well as a mysterious explosion at Iran’s advanced uranium enrichment facility at Natanz in 2020. The Natanz strike, the result of a painstakingly planned and daring strategy, did serious damage to Iran’s nuclear program.