The attempted assassination of a former Israeli ambassador, the late Shlomo Argov on June 3, 1982, which was the immediate cause of the Peace for Galilee Operation (later known as the First Lebanon War or the 1982 Lebanon War) was not planned by then-chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Yasser Arafat and his associates, nor was it perpetrated on behalf of the Palestinians. It was the initiative of another villain who was presiding in Baghdad at the time, one Saddam Hussein.
Thirty-one years ago, in the evening hours of June 7 1981, Israeli Air Force (IAF) fighter aircraft attacked the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor and destroyed it. Thus, in a few brief moments, Saddam Hussein's grandiose dream of acquiring nuclear weapons that would create a "balance of terror vis à vis the Israeli nuclear threat on the Arab nation" and help him end the war against Iran faded into thin air.
"Begin [the late Menachem Begin, then-Israeli Prime Minister, who ordered the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor] had better take notice," Saddam said angrily at a secret meeting with his senior advisors two days after the IAF bombing of the reactor. "We are always learning the lessons and drawing conclusions. We will therefore build [our nuclear industry] once again all by ourselves." In an interview to the media at the end of that month [June 1981], The Iraqi dictator announced: "Our response to the Zionists' hostile action we put off for the time being. However, our nation will never forget this act of aggression."
And sure enough, Iraq did not forget. It was waiting for the right moment, and that moment came in the 1991 Gulf War, when it launched a massive missile attack on Israel, firing some 40 missiles on various targets across the country. However, Saddam Hussein managed to have his revenge on Israel even before, when he trapped it into opening war on Lebanon.
In the spring of 1982, Iraq was dealt a smashing defeat by the Iranian forces. Following the beating he took, Saddam decided to completely withdraw his armed forces from the Iranian territories they had occupied and redeploy them along the international border between Iraq and Iran, in an attempt to bring the war to an end. At the same time, Saddam made another dramatic decision — to stir up a confrontation between Israel and Iran and other Arab countries with the hope that, once embroiled on another front, the Iranians would cease fire on the Iraqi front.
Saddam was well aware that Israel was looking for an opportunity to attack the Palestinian forces in Lebanon, as it was concerned about the tension in the region since the summer of 1981, and troubled by the massive rocket firing on the Galilee and the deployment of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles in the Beqaa Valley in east Lebanon. He thus sought to generate the spark that would kindle the conflagration. He came up with the idea of hitting an Israeli target using the Abu Nidal Organization (a Palestinian terrorist splinter group from the PLO), with the Iraqi Intelligence Service, under the leadership of Saddam Hussein's half-brother Barzan al-Tikriti orchestrating the operation. The target chosen was then-Israeli ambassador to the United Kingdom Shlomo Argov. The hit men, arrested by the British Scotland Yard, admitted under investigation that the order for the attack had been given them by an envoy from Baghdad and that the guns for the assassination attempt had been provided by the Iraqi embassy in London.
Saddam hoped to set off a war between Israel and the PLO and Syria and, indeed, managed to achieve his aim. However, he had even more ambitious plans. The Iraqi ruler approached Iran with the proposal to put an end to the war between the two countries, offering in return to allow the passage of Iranian troops to Syria via Iraq for the purpose of fighting Israel. Thus, Saddam fantasized, three of his confirmed enemies — Arafat, Assad (Hafez al-Assad, then President of Syria) and Khomeini (the Supreme Leader of Iran from 1979 to 1989) — would wage war on his other foe, Israel, and Baghdad would be spared.
While this move did not yield the fruit Saddam hoped for, as the Iranians carried on their offensive in Iraq, he did manage to retaliate against us in kind, having dragged Israel deep into the Lebanese mire, where it remained sunk for the next 18 years. And the rest is history.
Professor Amatzia Baram heads the Center for Iraqi Studies at Haifa University's Department of Middle Eastern History.
Colonel (res.) Pesah Melubani served in the Israeli Intelligence community. He is currently an independent researcher, focusing on the history of the Arab armies and on military history in general.