By Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Three decades ago, an Israeli prime minister faced his cabinet and invoked the Holocaust in an emotional appeal to approve an air strike against an Arab atomic reactor.
Menachem Begin got the nod, cautioning that a nuclear-armed Iraq under Saddam Hussein would pose a threat to the existence of the Jewish state. On June 7, 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed the nuclear facility near Baghdad.
The current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would also need ministerial backing, from his 15-member security cabinet, should he seek to attack Iran, despite Washington's warnings of the risks to the global economy and U.S. regional interests.
Precedents such as the bombing in Iraq and a similar 2007 sortie against Syria, suggest that Netanyahu, fearing for operational secrecy given Israel's talkative political culture, would count on the reduced government forum to represent cross-partisan agreement on any risky mission against Iran.
Much would hinge on whether he would deem striking Iranian nuclear sites an "operation" and thus sidestep a decade-old Israeli law requiring the full cabinet ratify the launching of a war.
"In the State of Israel, any process of a military operation, and any military move, undergoes the approval of the security cabinet and in certain cases, the full cabinet," Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Sunday when asked in an interview how a green-light to attack Iran might be given.
"In any event, the decision is not made by two people, nor three, nor eight," he told Israel's Army Radio on Sunday, alluding to media speculation that Netanyahu might make do with conferring with his defense minister, or with the foreign minister as well, or with his eight-member inner council.
U.S. President Barack Obama, with whom Netanyahu has had a frosty relationship, said on Sunday he did not believe Israel has made a decision on a course of action towards Iran. Washington, Obama said, was not taking any options off the table to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Tehran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes and has accused Israel, widely believed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the Middle East, of hypocrisy. It has threatened to wipe Israel out and, more recently, to retaliate against U.S. and European sanctions on its finances and oil sales.
IN THE DARK
In 1981, Begin kept both the Knesset plenum and a key parliamentary security panel in the dark about the planned F-16 sneak attack, explaining later that he could not trust lawmakers not to leak details to the media.
The air force chief at the time, David Ivry, said the mission was approved by the security cabinet and then the full cabinet, with all present being asked to sign secrecy contracts.
"First came the approval in principle, and then the detailed discussions and briefings," Ivry told Reuters.
A briefing paper presented to Begin's cabinet ministers by Israeli military intelligence cautioned that Washington might respond to an attack against Iraq by clamping an arms embargo on Israel, according to "Tammuz in Flames," a 1993 book on the operation by Israeli journalist Shlomo Nakdimon, whose manuscript was reviewed by close Begin aides.
But with just one holdout, and over opposition by Israel's Mossad spy chief, the ministers voted in favor of the attack, which destroyed the French-built reactor without the loss of a single Israeli plane.
"The memory of the Holocaust in which six million Jews perished remained before (Begin's) eyes throughout all the discussions," Moshe Nissim, a cabinet minister at the time, wrote in his own book about the strike.
"He underscored the fact that this action was saving thousands of Israeli children from the claws of the Butcher of Baghdad," Nissim wrote.
Israel's official statement on the 1981 air raid spoke of the need to eliminate "an existential threat to the people of Israel," language echoed by Netanyahu, who has said the Holocaust has taught the Jewish state it must not shy from acting alone to thwart any danger to its survival.
The 2007 raid on Syria -- which the United States said targeted a nascent reactor, though Damascus denied having one -- also appears to have been a success, not least as Israel's policy of not discussing the event has since been upheld by those members of the cabinet who were made privy.
The naming on Sunday of a new air force chief, Amir Eshel, has stirred speculation that he would be reluctant to carry out an attack on Iran. Briefing foreign diplomats and reporters last month, Eshel, currently the military's planning chief, said Israel could hit "an adversary very, very hard" but could expect to deliver "knock-outs" should it go to war again.
Ivry said that while the air force chief was not legally empowered to veto a government decision to take military action, in practice he wielded make-or-break sway in the deliberations.
"If you say that it can't be done, that it's too risky or dangerous, then that's a veto, de facto," Ivry said.
As is customary for Israeli premiers, Netanyahu heads a coalition government which commands the majority of Knesset seats. His alliance is dominated by religious and rightist parties which would likely be more accommodating of arguments in favor of pre-emptively striking Iran's nuclear program.
On Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Tehran's nuclear program was reaching a stage where atomic facilities would be sheltered against any military attack.
"Those who say 'later' may find that later is too late," Barak said, an indirect reference to the prevailing view in Washington that sanctions on Iran should be given time to work.
To cast the net of consensus further, Netanyahu would almost certainly convene Israel's centrist opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, to notify her of his plans and ask for her support.
Learning of plans for the strike against Iraq's reactor, Shimon Peres, Labour opposition leader at the time and now Israeli president, cautioned Begin that Israel would be isolated internationally, "like a thistle in the desert," if the attack went ahead.
As opposition leader in 2007, Likud party chief Netanyahu was consulted about the Syria strike by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Though Netanyahu lacks chemistry with Livni, as a former cabinet minister and Mossad spy she would not be viewed as a leak risk.
Three decades ago, Begin took no such chances.
Israeli warplanes were already on their way to Iraq when Begin, who also served as defense minister, summoned his cabinet to his Jerusalem residence. Although the ministers had approved the operation, they had agreed that only Begin, his foreign minister and top generals would decide when to launch the raid.
"Shalom, my friends," Begin told them, according to Nakdimon's account. "At this moment, our planes are approaching Baghdad and the first one will be over the atomic reactor shortly."
(Reporting by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; editing by Philippa Fletcher)