Jerusalem (Jun. 10)
Israel’s raid on Iraq’s nuclear facility Sunday became enmeshed in election campaign politics today as Premier Menachem Begin, continuing his defiant stance against mounting world criticism, accused Labor Party leader Shimon Peres of having opposed the air strike that Begin claims saved Israel from destruction by Iraqi atomic bombs.
Begin drew a sharp reply from Peres. The Labor Party issued a statement yesterday accusing the Likud government of timing the air attack to gain maximum political benefit. The party named Gen. (ret.) Mordechai Gur, who was Chief of Staff during the famous Entebbe rescue operation in 1976, as its spokesman on the issue.
Begin vowed at a press conference late yesterday that Israel would “not tolerate” the development of “weapons of mass destruction” by any of its enemies. He said that if the Iraqis rebuilt their bombed-out nuclear reactor Israel would destroy it again, but he predicted it would take them “many years” to rebuild it.
Begin also lashed out at France and Italy for having supplied nuclear know-how and material to the Iraqis. Invoking the Holocaust, he termed their behavior “inhuman” and “shameful.” Those European nations “should have remembered the Jewish tragedy” in Nazi Europe, Begin said, but instead they contributed to a potential “new Holocaust” against the Jewish state. He said 2,500,000 Jewish children were killed by the Nazis in World War II and a similar fate would have befallen hundreds of thousands of Jewish children in Israel had Iraq been allowed to implement its nuclear plans.
It was understood here that Begin offered the same argument in his letter to President Reagan justifying the Israeli raid. He sought to play down the Administration’s strong condemnation of the attack and said he hoped the U.S. would understand Israel’s motives once they had studied them.
BEGIN SAYS WOULD DO IT AGAIN
Begin made it clear that Israel would knock out nuclear installations in any Arab country if it decided that such installations could produce weapons to attack Israel. Asked if a similar strike might be launched against Libya which is reportedly building a nuclear facility, he replied, “Let’s first deal with the meshuggener (lunatic) Saddam Hussein (President of Iraq). We’ll deal with the other meshuggener another time.” He was referring obviously to Libya’s ruler, Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
Begin’s running battle with Peres developed after Begin claimed on a radio interview Monday that the Labor Party leader wrote to him “three or four weeks ago” advising against the Iraqi operation. Peres replied that he had not opposed the planned raid but its original timing for May 10, the day of the French Presidential elections.
Today, Begin, in effect, called Peres a liar. He sent Knesset Foreign Affairs and Security Committee chairman Moshe Arens a copy of a confidential letter he said he received from Peres on May 10 in which Peres urged him not to order the strike. According to the letter released by Begin, the Labor Party leader wrote, “I speak from experience and there are others who think the same way I do. Israel would become isolated and lay herself open to similar attacks.”
Begin said today that there was nothing in Peres’ letter which indicated that he objected only to the timing of the air attack. Peres issued a sharply worded statement today criticizing Begin for releasing the text of a “personal letter.” He said that this provided even more proof that Begin was pursuing electoral considerations rather than the national interest.
GUR CHALLENGES BEGIN STANCE
Peres said in his letter, which was handwritten and partially in coded phrases because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, that it would be the height of insensitivity to bomb the Iraqi reactor, built and maintained by French technicians, on the day of the French elections. He also reportedly informed Begin that his fellow Socialist, Francois Mitterrand, who won the election, had agreed to restrict French nuclear activities and that the new government in France should be given a chance to change its policy of selling nuclear material to Iraq.
The Labor Alignment accused Begin’s government of making political capital of the raid. Its statement issued yesterday expressed “doubt and reservations about the political considerations, the timing and information pertaining to the destruction of the Iraqi reactor as given by the government yesterday” (Monday). Chaim Herzog, head of the Labor campaign committee, said on a television interview last night that election considerations had contributed to the timing of the attack.
The Labor statement suggested that “The helm of State be removed from Likud control because government decisions increase our fear that its responsibility and political considerations cannot be relied upon.”
Gur replying to Begin’s press conference remarks, said that because of the attacks on Israel for the Iraqi raid “by friends and foes alike”, he had to “walk on hot coals” in his criticism of the government. But he focused on what he termed Begin’s “light-hearted approach” to so serious a matter and his “humorous” comments in reply to reporters’ questions. He said this called into question the credibility of the Premier and his colleagues in dealing with fateful matters.
GUR SAYS NO NEED FOR EARLY RAID
According to Gur, he had information that indicated that the nuclear reactor near Baghdad was not as close to completion as Begin had suggested. He said the air strike could have been ordered after the June 30 elections, noting that even if Likud was defeated, Begin and his Cabinet would remain in office for several months until a new government is sworn in.
Gur also protested Begin’s “hysterical use of the threat of a holocaust. A month or so ago we heard of a holocaust of the Christians in Lebanon and now we
hear of the potential danger of a holocaust in Israel,” Gur said.
However, Gur insisted that the use of American-made fighter bombers in the raid “was fully within the terms of Israel’s right to self-defense.”