“I swear I believe Armageddon is near,” Ronald Reagan confided to his diary on June 7, 1981. He had just learned that the Israelis had bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak.
Rather than consult with the Americans in advance, Prime Minister Menachem Begin had informed the United States only “after the fact,” Reagan noted tersely, and was insisting that “the plant was preparing to produce nuclear weapons for use on Israel.” Begin felt he couldn’t risk waiting until the French, who had sold Iraq the reactor, actually shipped uranium to power it, “because of the radiation that would be loosed over Baghdad.”
“I can understand his fear but feel he took the wrong option,” Reagan wrote. “He should have told us & the French, we could have done something to remove the threat.”
But there was no question of condemning the assault. “We are not turning on Israel—that would be an invitation for the Arabs to attack,” Reagan continued. “It’s time to raise H--l world wide for a settlement of the ‘middle-east’ problem. What has happened is the result of fear & suspicion on both sides. We need a real push for a solid peace.”
Armageddon did not arrive, of course, and neither did peace. A few months later, assassins gunned down President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. (Sadat, who led the 1973 war against Israel, died because he’d had the courage, in 1979, to sign a peace treaty—with Begin, as it happens.) Then, the following June, Israel reacted to the shooting of one of its diplomats in London by invading Lebanon. In early August, Israel unleashed such a brutal bombardment that Reagan lost his cool with Begin. “I was angry,” he wrote. “I told him it had to stop or our entire future relationship was endangered. I used the word holocaust deliberately & said the symbol of his war was becoming a picture of a 7 month old baby with its arms blown off.”