by Rodger W. Claire
(Broadway Books, 2004)
Reviewed by Bob Jacobson
The chance that Israel might destroy Iran’s capability to develop nuclear weapons has recently received serious speculation. After all, that’s exactly what the Israeli Air Force (IAF) did to Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June, 1981. For the next twenty years details of that mission were secret. Shortly thereafter, however, IAF commander General David Ivry became ambassador to the United States. Ivry began discussing the details publicly. The mission’s youngest pilot, Ilan Ramon, had not yet died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster. Iraqi nuclear scientist Khidhir Hamza had defected to the United States. Screenwriter and journalist Rodger Claire interviewed them all, in addition to the seven other pilots and other major players involved in the operation.
Israel’s aerial bombardment of the Iraq reactor, just outside Baghdad, was by no means a foregone conclusion. Claire details the opposition within the Israeli military, intelligence service and cabinet, as well as the doubts of even those who staunchly defended the mission. The author does an excellent job of conveying all the drama of the Israeli raid, from conception to aftermath. Though the reader already knows the outcome, Claire’s method of chronicling every little detail of the mission, in both human and technical terms, keeps you on the edge of your seat.
While Claire presents Operation Babylon in heroic terms, he doesn’t treat all its players, or Israel itself, with kid gloves. He very frankly presents the facts on Israeli intelligence service (Mossad) activities in France, including murder; multiple instances in which Israel deceived or broke agreements with the United States; and the potentially disastrous ego problems of the highest-ranking pilot in the operation. Israel’s own nuclear program, initially developed with French technical assistance just like Iraq’s, gets substantial attention. Nor does he spare then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, whose gaffe during a political speech caused serious problems for the secrecy of Israel’s nuclear operations.
The author seems to have a terrific grasp of the technical aspects of the Israeli pilots’ difficult mission. More explanation of some of the technical terms used would have been helpful for lay readers, however. Oddly, despite the fact that this book was published in 2004, no mention is made of the current Iran issue.