Invoking memories of the Nazi holocaust, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin warned tonight that if Iraq rebuilds a nuclear reactor capable of producing atomic weapons, Israel "will use all the facilities at our disposal to destroy that reactor."
Rejecting the wave of international criticism set off by the Israeli raid against the reactor, Begin warned that Israel will not tolerate any enemy country -- Arab or otherwise -- developing weapons of mass destruction intended for use against Israel.
In toughly worded responses to questions posed at a crowded news conference here, Begin said the Israeli Air Force attack Sunday against a 70-megawatt nuclear reactor near the Iraqi capital of Baghdad was conducted in "supreme, legitimate self-defense."
If the nuclear reactor had not been destroyed, Begin said, "another holocaust would happen in the history of the Jewish people. There will never be another holocaust in the history of the Jewish people. Never again, never again!"
Although the raid came in the midst of an election campaign, political leaders representing a broad spectrum of ideology rallied behind the government to support the raid.
Begin, flanked by his Army chief of staff, Air Force commander and chief of military intelligence, also disclosed some details of the daring, surprise air strike that had not been known.
A color videotape taken during the raid was shown today to members of the Cabinet, but the prime minister's office said it was unlikely the film would be released.
He and his military aides said the Israeli jets flew more than 1,000 miles to their target, apparently avoiding detection until they reached the Iraqi border, where there was sporadic antiaircraft fire. No Israeli plane was hit.
Air Force Lt. Gen. David Ivri said the mission was carried out with such precision that the debriefing of the pilots was "rather boring."
Begin said the Israeli pilots had "no possibility of making a forced landing over enemy territory if they got in trouble," surrounded by antiaircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles and fighter planes.
"And yet they went into the lions' den to defend our Jewish people," Begin said.
When asked if it was true the pilots had been told they were on a possible suicide mission, Begin bristled, saying, "They did not go in there to die. They went into there to save our people. It was risky, but very, very logical."
Israeli newspapers bannered the heroic aspects of the mission, likening it to the rescue of hostages aboard a hijacked airliner at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976.
When asked if the presence of French nuclear technicians at the reactor -- contrary to Israeli intelligence reports that shift workers would likely be off on Sunday -- represented an intelligence failure, Army chief of intelligence Yehoshua Saguy replied, "perhaps the failure was in France."
Begin added that the fact that a number of aircraft heavily bombed a relatively small target and caused a maximum of three casualties could not be interpreted as a failure in intelligence.
[In Paris, an official source called Saguy's comment a "scandalous" implication of French complicity in the Israeli raid. The source said Israel was aware that French technicians at the site took their day off on Friday, the Moslem day of rest.]
The Israeli military chiefs said no new type of bomb was used in the mission.
Ivri said in response to a question that it is impossible to compare the hazards of Sunday's mission with a possible Israeli air strike against the Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries deployed in central Lebanon after Israeli jets shot down two Syrian helicopters April 28.
Then, cyptically invoking a saying in Hebrew about boasting before donning armor, Ivri said the Iraqi operation is behind Israel, while the Syrian problem lies ahead.
For his part, Begin flatly rejected the wave of international criticism that followed Sunday's attack.
"Where is the country which would tolerate such a danger?" Begin asked, drawing a parallel between the potential tragedy of an atomic explosion over Tel Aviv and the children posioned by gas in Nazi death camps in World War II.
He said that in two to three years, Iraq would have produced up to five atomic bombs, and that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein already had threatened publicly to use them against Israel.
When asked if Sunday's attack signaled a new policy of preemptive strikes against all Arab nations that initiate nuclear programs, Begin replied, "I didn't say so. I said Israel will not tolerate any enemy -- not Arab, any enemy -- to develop weapons of mass destruction against the people of Israel."
Asked if Israel would attack again if Iraq attempts to rebuild the destroyed reactor, the prime minister said, "According to all estimates by the specialists, when they will have that reactor rebuilt I will not be here anymore . . . What I can tell you, as a human being, is that I believe that should the Iraqis try again to build a reactor through which the facilities at our disposal to destroy the reactor."
When asked what Israel will do if Libya develops a viable reactor program, Begin said, "Let us deal with that meshugana Saddam Hussein first. With the others, we will deal another time." Meshugana is a Yiddish term for "crazy."
Begin said that Israel is prepared to sign a nuclear nonproliferation treaty, but only if surrounding Arab countries "make peace with us. If they refuse, what is the point of signing?"
Meanwhile, political leaders in a broad spectrum of ideologies closed ranks behind the government today and declared support for the air strike.
Opposition Labor Party leader Shimon Peres, following a three-hour briefing of the Cabinet and the parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defense, told reporters, "I have expressed my admiration for our Army, for our Air Force. I think it was brilliantly planned and executed, and that is as far as I can go."
He added, "Israel now is in the middle of a political confrontation and I really wouldn't want to say anything that would make the position of Israel more difficult than it is."
A member of the parliament, Zalman Shoval, of former foreign minister Moshe Dayan's opposition Telem party, said, "I compliment the Israeli Air Force. It was a perfect execution of a very difficult and very important mission. . . . The people who decided thought it was warranted. It's not for me to offer a different point of view at this time."
Moshe Arens, chairman of the Knesset committee, said, "The operation was, of course, justified and more so."
As for the U.S. reaction, Arens said, "I think it is unfortunate, and I hope that after some discussion with the United States there will be more understanding of the position Israel has taken. I think that all Israeli citizens can breathe a sigh of relief, and I think that all the citizens of the civilized world can breathe a sigh of relief now that the Iraqis cannot build atomic bombs."
Arens said Israel had been put in a "no choice situation."
News services reported the following international reaction to the Israeli attack:
Despite their internal feuds, Arab nations united to denounce what many called a "terrorist" attack and led a call repeated by other countries for international sanctions against Israel.
The U.N. Security Council was expected to meet Friday to hear Iraq's complaint that Israel committed a "grave act of aggression."
China, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, Egypt, Iran and Pakistan were among those to condemn the Israeli raid.
Some members of Kuwait's National Assembly called for an oil boycott and demanded Arab nations withdraw their funds from U.S. banks to protest the use of U.S.-made weapons for "killing our children," the Kuwaiti news agency said.
France, which built the Iraqi nuclear reactor lodged a protest with the Israeli ambassador.
The West German Foreign Ministry said it was a "dismayed and concerned" by the attack and U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, visiting Tokyo, called it a "clear contravention of international law."