Ze’ev Raz was the leader of the IDF attack force that bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981. Today he works at Elta Systems LTD, one of Israel’s leading defense electronics companies and a subdivision of Israel Aerospace Industries.
The Jewish Press met recently with the former IAF pilot to get his thoughts on the Israeli bombing in September of an alleged nuclear facility in Syria; on Israel’s options in dealing with what Israeli leaders still consider a very real Iranian nuclear threat; and on what went through his mind as he carried out one of the most daring military actions in Israel’s history.
The Jewish Press: Do you have any special insight into what exactly Israel did in Syria this past September?
Raz: We still don’t know what actually transpired in Syria. It seems there was nuclear activity there that originated from North Korea. Of course, if we see an enemy country engaged in nuclear activity, it doesn’t mean we automatically must rush in and bomb it. To this day Shimon Peres says – and he bases this on what several nuclear experts told him – that even if we hadn’t bombed Iraq 26 years ago, the Iraqis still wouldn’t be able to produce a nuclear bomb.
But of course, what went on in Syria in cooperation with North Korea smelled so bad that even a dovish Mapainik like the late Moshe Sharett (who opposed the Sinai Campaign in 1956) would have supported bombing the Syrian facility.
Even before the U.S. released its new intelligence findings stating that Iran allegedly suspended its nuclear program in 2003, Israel seemed undecided about launching a strike a la the 1981 operation in Iraq. What’s your view on this?
Any preemptive Israeli strike against Iran would be potentially beneficial to Israel – but also very risky. Why do you think there was such a heated debate in 1981 about whether to approve the bombing of Iraq?
In hindsight it appears that bombing Iraq was the obvious thing to do because it was successful. But try to look at it through the eyes of Ezer Weizman or Yigal Yadin or Yosef Burg in 1981 when they had to make a decision. They said, "Look, we just signed a peace treaty with Egypt, and in the end the Arabs will have a nuclear bomb anyway, you can’t stop it forever, and they know we have one so if they try to do something they’ll be wiped off the map. So why bomb Iraq? What do you expect Israel to do, go after every country that has an atomic bomb and bomb it?"
This was the thinking of people like Weizman, Yadin, Burg, Shimon Peres and others. They thought the peace treaty with Egypt would break down because of this action. They were mistaken, but no one could know this in advance.
Begin himself didn’t know whether bombing Iraq would break the treaty with Egypt, but he said that Saddam Hussein having an atomic bomb was a greater threat to Israel than the loss of a peace treaty with Egypt. My personal opinion, by the way, is that Begin anyway had started having second thoughts about the treaty he signed with Egypt.
So in retrospect you have no doubt Israel was right in bombing the Iraqi reactor?
Now, post factum, it’s obvious we had to do it. But again, before we actually did it we really didn’t know what the diplomatic fallout would be, nor did we know for sure whether the action would succeed and that all of our planes and pilots would return home safely.
It never dawned on us that the Iraqis would do absolutely nothing to stop us and so many other things would work in our favor.
Considering that in 1981 Israel did not hesitate to tell the world it was responsible for taking out Iraq’s reactor, why all the secrecy about what transpired in Syria in September?
That’s a very good question. My opinion – I can’t prove it but I have no other explanation – is that in 1981 Israel admitted to it because it was right before the elections. I remember distinctly the chief of staff telling us we won’t admit to anything and we should keep our mouths shut and act as though we know nothing – just as the government does now with Syria.
Suddenly, the day after the attack, I heard on the radio that Israel said it bombed Iraq. I was in total shock. When I returned from the mission I hadn’t even told my family where I’d been.
Some Israelis actually accused Begin, who was in the midst of a very tough fight for reelection, of ordering the raid to drive up his approval ratings.
Yes, I recall there were people who said at the time that Begin approved the action because of the upcoming elections, but in my opinion that is not true and just puts those who said it in a bad light. And I say this as someone who did not vote for Begin.
He approved the attack not because of the elections but because of what I heard our Intelligence tell him. They said, Listen, if you’re going to wait until 1982 the reactor will be hot and active and there will be a lot of radiation (like what happened in Chernobyl in 1986), so wipe it out now before it has a chance to become active.
I think he did the right thing.
Look, when we received our reactor in Dimona from France, its output was so low that it didn’t have what it would take to build a nuclear bomb. So what did we do? We raised its output. We were sure that eventually the Iraqis would do the same thing – raise the output of their reactor and in the end produce a bomb.
Assuming the Iranians are still, or will soon resume, actively working on developing a nuclear capability, it will be much more difficult for Israel to do in Iran what it did in Iraq in 1981. In light of that, is there any way Israel could deliver the kind of blow that would prevent Iran from building a nuclear bomb?
Even if we succeed in an attack on Iran, it will not be long before the Iranians are again actively involved in trying to build a nuclear capability. In fact, an Israeli attack will give them even more motivation to do so. So even if we bomb Iran, the effect will be similar to that of a temporary painkiller.
Of course I hope that if we do attack we will be successful and all our pilots will return home safely. It will be much harder than what we did in Iraq. Among other factors, we didn’t have to refuel in the air when we attacked Iraq but you can’t fly to Iran and back without refueling in the air.
You know, one of the planes that bombed Iraq was manned by Ilan Ramon, who perished in the NASA space shuttle accident several years ago. He was the youngest one among us and the only one not yet married.
He was our navigator, in charge of fuel, etc. When I was told what we were being asked to do in Iraq, I went to Ilan and asked him if it were possible to return to Israel after the strike without refueling. To get there was no problem, but how about getting back? He said that in fact we didn’t have enough fuel, and so we’d have to do all kinds of tricks to get back safely.
Can you describe the feeling you had when you bombed the reactor?
I felt I had a big z’chus, or privilege. It was very difficult for me to become a pilot. I was a weak pilot in the beginning. And now here I was, entrusted with carrying out such a mission. I felt a huge responsibility, as if the whole project rested on my shoulders and if I made the slightest mistake everything would be doomed and I wouldn’t be able to look at myself in the mirror. That is why the only thing that was on my mind was to find the target.
It’s like the story of the old Chinese hunter who is about to die and calls in his three sons to decide who among them would inherit his bow and arrow.
He asks the first son, "What do you see?"
He says, "I see you and everybody around us, a window, and outside the window there is a tree and on it a bird."
The father says, "No, you’re not a hunter."
He asks the second son what he sees. "I see a window and outside the window a tree with a bird on it," he tells his father.
The father says, "You’re not a hunter either." Then he asks the third son what he sees and the third son simply says, "I see a bird." The father says, "You are a hunter because a hunter only sees his target."
That is what went through my mind the whole time – "Where is the target, where is the target?"
By the way, none of us thought – not even in the IDF General Staff – that we would all come back alive.
Are you saying that when each of you took off you said goodbye to Israel and goodbye to your life?
Absolutely. Maybe some of us would come back, but we were sure there was no way that everyone would. So as far as each of us, individually, was concerned, it was our last day on earth.
Doesn’t that thought go through every pilot on this type of mission?
Yes, but in this case the risk was much greater. And yet things happened there that to this day we have no explanation for. For instance, according to all calculations the Iraqi radar systems were supposed to have spotted us at least 15 minutes before the bombing despite the fact that we flew at very low altitude.
That’s why we had eight and not four F-16 fighters, because we thought for sure the Iraqis would spot us and send several MIGs to try to down us. We thought we would encounter heavy resistance.
Don’t forget, the Iraqis were threatened by Iran too, so for sure they had their radar system and fighter MIGs on alert. We never thought we would take them by such complete surprise. But they didn’t do a thing.
Here is another inexplicable thing: King Hussein was vacationing in Aqaba and saw us on our way toward Iraq. He immediately phoned Amman – our intelligence picked up the whole conversation then – and reported it to them. But those idiots ignored it and didn’t do anything.
The way you are describing it, it sounds like an outright miracle.
Absolutely. Of course it was a miracle. How is it possible that even after we bombed the reactor not one plane tried to down us?
I’ll tell you something else: It takes an hour and a half to get back from Iraq to Israel and we were flying 40,000 feet above the ground. The General Staff originally wanted us to carry out the bombing after sunset so it would be harder for the Iraqis to attack us on the way back. But I was opposed to that. I thought if we did the bombing after sunset there wouldn’t be enough light and our planes would miss their target – so I insisted that the bombing take place before sunset.
As a result, we flew back as the sun was setting. But since the planes were traveling at such a fast speed, the sun was out all the time and never set. It was as though it remained standing in the middle of the horizon.
At that time we pilots all radioed each other reciting the same exact biblical verse – Joshua 10:12: "Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and moon, over the Valley of Ayalon."
You know, as I am recalling this now I am getting goose bumps.