Any act using military power by one nation against another in these days of a perilously overarmed universe can hardly be cause for celebration. Generally the nation that undertakes such action, claiming it was done to avoid impending danger to its own security, is entitled to have its case fairly examined by public opinion. Yet one cannot escape admitting that the burden of proof is on the nation that acts.
Unfortunately, nearly all of us who react lack the intimate knowledge on which Israel acted in bombing Iraq's nuclear reactor; nor do we Americans possess the full information on which our government has decided to temporarily suspend additional F-16 deliveries to Israel. Furthermore, it would be unnatural for me as an American Jew not to hope that Israel was justified in its action and will satisfactorily meet its burden of proof. Still, I feel I must raise certain questions and thoughts which beg for answers especially as they come from agonizing friends, not enemies, of the Jewish state:
* In the short run, what damage has been done to presidential envoy Philip Habib's peace mission to the Middle East, and was the timing of Israel's strike unvoidable? In retrospect, American diplomacy had forestalled an impending military confrontation between Israel and Syria and further raised hopes for a possible resolution of the Lebanese situation. Why did Israel act at this time and without consultations with the United States, thus endangering present regional peace while claiming to safeguard Israeli security in years ahead?
* Was the timing of the Baghdad raid inspired by Israel's June 30 election as seems to be the case? Even if the Israeli position of acting in self-defense is accepted, could not the action have been delayed just a few weeks, long enough to avoid tarnishing it with the suspicion that it was -- even partially -- an election ploy?
* Most imperative in the short run is the effect this act might have on Egyptian-Israeli relations, especially in light of the Sadat-Begin meeting held but days before the strike into Iraq. Camp David and Egypt are the only peace games in the Middle East. Anything that diminishes the political strength of Egypt or the significance of Camp David makes more consequential peace initiatives in the area far more difficult. Instead of increasing the prospect or true Israeli security, do not such actions reduce security by threatening regional stability, inflaming passions, and by further isolating both Egypt and Israel?
* Finally, what of the problems created for Israel's most reliable national friend, the US? The Reagan administration's frequently avowed regard for Israel as a "strategic" asset" is already disturbed by the AWACS issue and now will face internal decisions and United Nations problems not easily reconcilable to the satisfaction of either Israel or the US. Having accepted an arms dependency relationship with US, can Israel reasonably insist on taking actions unacceptable and unexplainable to may and which threaten American regional interests?
Yet the short-run problems will fade, leaving scars that are currently unpredictable. The grater fears that deeply concern me are the long-term implications for world order of Israel's action. There will be a never-ending difference between Israel and her acknowledged national enemies as to whether or not the act was justified in international law and usage as self-defense. Yet, looked at beyond the politics of the moment, and even accepting the Israeli claim of Iraqi intentions, there remain certain fundamental and gnawing questions which go to the heart of the Camp David peace process and to the basis of today's international society.
A rather ominous precedent has now been set. What is "sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander." Tomorrow, Iraq or some other unfriendly nation can indulge in a "suicide mission" on Israel's Dimona reactor, or India can turn on Pakistan, the Soviet Union on China. Israel has totally avoided this discussion as if only Israel's interests are vital, only Israel's existence threatened. Yet, in effect, Israel has breached the long and worrisome efforts to secure a measure of restraint in the nuclear age, with Israel's unilateral act creating a sense of anarchy and permissiveness hitherto beyond acceptability.
The Israeli government along with a number of friendly American commentators have compared Israeli's action with the proposed action of the US during the Cuban missile crisis -- even though the Americans followed a diplomatic course and avoided military action.
I was an ambassador on the American delegation at the UN in those days. And I remember vividly the painful week through which Ambassador Stevenson and other top government officials passed debating what steps the Us should take. The tension of a possible nuclear war was not easy for anyone to contemplate. The President, who doubtless favored a "surgical strike" if necessary, rightly decided to give the Soviets and the Cubans a way to step back. I was in the Security Council when Stevenson, in uncharacteristically turgid language, used the now historic phrase that he "would wait for an answer [from the USSR] until hell freezes over!" I can never forget the horror of that week, nor the sense of relief when the crisis evaporated.
Anyone who lived through those days cannot be overjoyed by this latest development, no matter now necessary it may have appeared to be to some. For now the devil of preemptive attack has been loosed -- all the worse for Israel having acted without clearly exhausting all opportunities for reaching a general peace in the region, which is surely the only way in the long term to safeguard Israel's security.
Without strenuous efforts in pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace structured on the foundation of the Camp David understanding, Israel's action may well stimulate rather than retard a highly destabilizing arms race. Just a decade ago Israeli bombing near Cairo had that very result. Today, such a new regional arms race might well go beyond conventional weapons.
But the greatest lesson that can be drawn from these events is that the world rests on the edge of a nuclear precipice. Whether it is between the superpowers or in the regional context in Asia or the Middle East, one single bomb of today's sophistication could unleash a holocaust for mankind. The great powers and Europe have been living for some time under a powerful nuclear sword of Damocles. Now Israel has struck out against the potential of facing a similar reality.
It behooves the superpowers to get on with serious arms limitations talks and , together with other nations on the verge of nuclear abilities, to develop a foolproof "fail safe" political and security program to protect us from our own rashness. Proclaiming "holy wars" or threatening use of nuclear weapons -- two events which clearly precipitated Israel's action -- hardly encourage restraint. But without superpowr leadership, regional actors are encouraged to act irresponsibly. Consequently George Kennan's recent call for "a bold and sweeping departure" from our present collision course through a quickly negotiated bilateral reduction in nuclear weapons deserves profound contemplation.
For Israel's action is but a symptom of the threat to which we are all ominously exposed. We are caught under a nuclear burden and have yet to discover a way to remove or even lighten it.