1981: Israeli Bombing of Suspected Iraqi Nuclear Facility

When Israel carried out a covert bombing of a suspected nuclear site in Iraq, Joe Biden supported the attack but complained that Israel didn’t inform him beforehand.

The Tammuz light-water nuclear materials testing reactor under construction in Al-Tuwaitha, just outside of Baghdad, Iraq, April 1, 1979. The testing facility was completely destroyed by an American aircraft during the 1991 Gulf War. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
The Tammuz-1, or Osirak, light-water nuclear materials testing reactor is seen in Tuwaitha, Iraq, on April 1, 1979. Photo: David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

Joe Biden was one of the staunchest promoters and defenders of Israel in Congress throughout his decadeslong career. On June 7, 1981, the Israeli air force carried out a covert airstrike on a suspected nuclear reactor, Osirak, outside Baghdad, killing 10 Iraqi soldiers and a French technician. Iran had previously bombed the site. According to Biden, the Israelis did not inform the U.S. government in advance of the attack, which offended the senator. “I am not as disturbed with the action that was taken, but I was disturbed with the manner in which this was taken,” Biden said at the time, adding that he wouldn’t forgive Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin for keeping the U.S. in the dark but “can understand why he did it.” Operation Opera, as the attack was code-named, was announced by Israel as a new paradigm under which the Jewish state would reserve the right to use preemptive military force against its perceived enemies, and the Begin Doctrine was promoted by the Israeli government as “a precedent for every future government in Israel.” Biden defended the Israeli strike against allegations that it could give justification to Libya or other nations to conduct similar strikes against their enemies. “In the case of Israel, this was a nation that was told, retold, and told again by the alleged possessor, or soon-to-be possessor, of a nuclear weapon, that its goal was the elimination of Israel as a nation-state,” he said. In 1981, Biden called himself “Israel’s best Catholic friend.”

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