When the Sun Stood Still

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

When Israel was planning its attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor 30 years ago next week, the general staff wanted to carry out the raid after sunset to give its pilots the cover of darkness on the way back. But the lead pilot, Colonel Ze’ev Raz, was opposed, because, he later told the Jewish Press newspaper, he thought that “if we did the bombing after sunset there wouldn’t be enough light.”

The decision forced the pilots to fly back in the full light of the setting sun. So great was their speed as they raced home that the sun was out the whole time. It never set. “It was though it remained standing in the middle of the horizon,” Colonel Raz told the Jewish Press, and the pilots radioed one another to recite the prayer of Joshua, “Sun, stand still over Gibeon. . . .”

The story is beautifully recounted in the Jewish Press this week in a dispatch by its senior editor, Jason Maoz, who quotes Colonel Raz as saying that the very recalling of the incident gave him goose bumps. All the more so for the rest of us today as the world watches and waits to see what will be done in respect of a new nuclear program designed to enable an atomic attack on the six million Jews of Israel.

Today there is much handwringing over what to do about the Iranian program. The thing to remember is that there were also risks 30 years ago, and it’s hard to see how they were different in anything but scale, if that. Nor is the political alignment much different. The same countries and newspapers that opposed Israel’s raid on Iraq 30 years ago can be expected to fly into high dudgeon if Israel — or America — attacks the Iranian nuclear program.

Thirty years ago, the decision to attack Iraq was Prime Minister Begin’s. Gradually, those who criticized him came around. The editor of the New York Times — which had issued an editorial accusing Israel of launching a “sneak attack” that it characterized as “an act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression” — later acknowledged that the paper had made an error of judgment. President Reagan, whose administration signed onto a U.N. resolution against the raid, later acknowledged, the Jewish Press reminds us, that privately he “sympathized with Begin’s motivations” and “believed we should give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Begin himself never had any doubts. He was a natural leader, who had risen from underground to take on the British Empire. He didn’t debate his decision in public before he made it, though he’d made consultations among his military and strategic advisers in Israel. He never asked anyone for permission, though he informed some of his countrymen, including the Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, of the possibility of an attack. He told his cabinet of what was about to happen only as the Israeli F-16s were approaching Baghdad. To those who caviled, he had his reply. “There won’t be another Holocaust in history — never again.”

* * *

We have often thought about Begin in the years since then. He came to believe that ordering the destruction of the Iraq atomic plant was the most important thing he did in his entire astounding life. It certainly set him up for re-election, after a season when voters had grown doubtful. He knew before he launched the attack that it was by no means certain that Iraq would obtain an atomic bomb. But he knew there was a possibility.

Begin knew, too, that the situation would grow steadily more dangerous. He knew that it’s better to act, to do one’s best, than to live forever in fear. He knew he risked defeat. But he knew what success would mean. And no doubt he knew that sometimes in the heat of battle marvelous, even miraculous things can happen, even that the sun can stand still like it did that day over Gibeon.


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