Exclusive Book Excerpt: How Israel Made its Secret Decision to Strike at Syria in 2007

It’s been observed that when Israel decides to strike at a foe in the Middle East neighborhood, it goes ahead and does it — in the spirit of the character played by Eli Wallach in the movie, “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” who sat in a bubblebath and declared, “If you’re going to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk!”

But reality is rarely so simple. Israeli leaders also consult — with influential people in their own country, and with allies (though that usually means checking on Washington’s attitude before doing something dramatic).

Here, in an exclusive (edited) excerpt from our book Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, is the tale of how Israel decided to bomb the nuclear reactor that Bashar al-Assad was building in Syria.

Note that Barack Obama’s predecessor was urged by Israel to attack the Syrian site, but George W. Bush refused.

On this summer day in 2007, [Mossad director Meir] Dagan was going to brief [Prime Minister Ehud] Olmert on various intelligence matters, with nothing unusual on the agenda.  Half-way from the Mossad’s Glilot headquarters to the prime minister’s modest, two-story office in the Kirya compound, Dagan got a phone call.

Meir Dagan on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” 2012

His chief intelligence officer had news, but worded it cautiously.  “That thing we are working on?  It’s certain.”

Dagan immediately understood and told the chief analyst to rush to the Kirya to join the meeting.   The two senior Mossad men laid out for the prime minister what Israeli spy satellites – and now spies on the ground – had been able to verify in an obscure part of eastern Syria, about 300 miles northeast of Damascus.  The Syrians were close to completing the construction of a nuclear reactor.

The Mossad’s “non-conventional weapons” researchers assessed that the reactor was closely modeled on a North Korean design, built with the help of advisors from that country, and that the goal was to produce plutonium as the fissile material for bombs.  The site was called Al-Kibar, according to Syrian officials in phone calls intercepted by Aman’s Unit 8200.  The Mossad had gotten its hands on photos, apparently taken by Syrians, showing the inside of the building and a visit by a senior North Korean nuclear official.

Ehud Olmert, when prime minister

Olmert was suddenly reminded why his job was one of the most difficult on the planet.  New challenges arose with little or no warning, and they demanded decisiveness.  This was far beyond his previous jobs as a lawyer, politician, and mayor ofJerusalem.

He had become prime minister only in January of the previous year, when Ariel Sharon suddenly had to be replaced as prime minister.  A severe stroke in January 2006 silenced and paralyzed one of the strongest and most loquacious of Israeli leaders, andSharonwould apparently live out his days in a vegetative state.

Hearing about Syria’s secret project, Olmert turned grimly serious.

“What are we going to do about it?” he reflexively asked.

Within minutes, it was clear that the question was rhetorical.  The two Mossad men and the prime minister all knew thatIsraelwould have to demolish the Syrian reactor.

-o-

How close to completion was the project?  The answer would be significant.  Israeli leaders might feel they had to bomb the building urgently, or they might decide they had time to wait and see.

In March 2007, irrefutably incriminating evidence arrived.  These were photos taken inside the mysterious building.  Who took the photos is the most closely guarded secret of the operation.  It could have been Mossad combatants who managed to penetrate the facility.  The Israelis also might have recruited a Syrian, or even a North Korean, to take snapshots inside and provide them to the Mossad.  The most likely scenario: Israelis extracted the photographs from a laptop computer or a memory drive carelessly carried abroad by a Syrian official.

There was now strong pictorial evidence thatSyriawas building a graphite reactor of the Yongbyon type, used byNorth Koreato make its own nuclear bombs. Israelunderstood that the Communist pariah state, always desperate for hard currency, did it for the money.

Even more important and troubling was the assessment by the Mossad’s non-conventional weapons department that the reactor could be ready to “go hot” within a few months, and then it would take a little over a year to produce enough plutonium for a nuclear bomb.

One more piece of evidence was troubling.  Large pipes and a pumping station, for cooling the reactor with Euphrates River water, seemed to be complete  – ready for use.

An additional item of data contributed toIsrael’s decision-making process.  The Mossad concluded that Iranhad no role whatsoever in the construction of the reactor.  Despite a growing friendship between Syria and Iran, the Iranians were not privy to the secret.  An alliance between nations, however close, still can be constrained by a large degree of compartmentalization.

That was the information that Dagan and his chief intelligence officer were bringing to their briefing for Olmert in Tel Aviv – the meeting that concluded with a consensus that the building would have to be flattened.

That was, of course, much easier said than done.

The burden of decision-making was now slowly shifting from the intelligence community to the IDF and, above all, to a political process led by Olmert and his cabinet.

Faced with a huge decision, any Israeli prime minister, early on, tests the waters of the Potomac to hear what the American administration has to say on the subject.  Almost all major choices were made by Israel after consulting with or telling the United States– although the Israelis rarely stood still for a long period to field questions and get bogged down in soul-searching and indecision.

They saw George W. Bush’s administration as the most friendly toIsraelsince the Reagan era.  But being entangled in two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Americans might react in unexpected ways.

It was traditional to send the director of the Mossad toWashingtonto test those waters.  Olmert dispatched Dagan, who showed the CIA and the Pentagon a dossier and asked: Do you Americans know about this?

They did not.

Olmert, paying his own visit toWashingtonin June 2007, addressed President Bush face to face: “George, I am asking you to bomb the compound.”

Bush decided, however, that bombing Syria without obvious provocation would cause “severe blowback.”  He suggested that Western countries should instead expose the Syrian reactor project, by providing photographic evidence to the world’s media, to force the Damascus government to dismantle it.

Olmert’s reply to the president, in July, was: “Your strategy is very disturbing to me.”

The prime minister concluded that, if action were needed,Israelwould have to do it alone.  Olmert found himself suddenly in the same position as was the late Menachem Begin in 1981.  Olmert had to decide whether he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and enforce the Begin Doctrine – that no enemy of Israelwould be allowed to have nuclear weapons.

Consulting with very few advisors, Olmert reached his own decision that he would follow the Begin line.  It was almost instinctive, based on strategic analysis and a sense of Jewish history, that Israe lneeded to maintain a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.  Still, many questions needed to be resolved.

The preferred option would be sabotage: to send a very limited number of Israelis to destroy the facility.  That was removed from the table, when IDF special forces and the Mossad said they could not reliably get there with all the explosives and other materials they would need.

The discussion itself recalled 1981, when the option of sending a large contingent of soldiers was ruled out: too visible, too risky, and the probability of success unknown.

Attention turned, as it did then, to an aerial attack.  Analysts in Israel’s air force started applying their specialty – using the mathematics of operational research – and calculated how many planes would be needed, what load to carry, what routes to fly, and what air-defense hazards they might encounter.

The political decision-making process, in the meantime, got into full gear.  The first question was one of timing.  The Mossad’s non-conventional weapons department determined the window of opportunity to be a matter of just a few months, running only to the end of autumn of 2007.  At that point, the reactor would become operational.

The very few Israelis privy to the secret were shaken by that.  They feared that if the reactor were bombed after going hot, radiation would spread.  That would cause the worst possible pollution in the Euphrates River, which flows fromTurkey, via Syria, to Iraq, and provides the livelihood for millions of people.

If such contamination were to happen,Israelwould be blamed for a colossal ecological disaster.  International reactions might be reminiscent of old anti-Semitic accusations that Jews poisoned wells.  The Muslim world would be up in arms.

Olmert slightly expanded the number of people who were involved in these discussions.  Over a matter of weeks, he hosted five serious meetings of his inner cabinet – 14 people in all – with every minister encouraged to express his or her genuine views.

The ministers were helped to come to a conclusive decision by the knowledge that the Israeli intelligence community and the military, this time, spoke with one voice.  That was a huge difference from the deliberations leading to the Osirak attack 26 years earlier.  All the intelligence agency chiefs, their deputies, and their top analysts now favored demolishing Syria’s reactor project – including Dagan, the Aman chief General Amos Yadlin, who was one of the pilots who struck Iraq in 1981, and the IDF chief of staff, Lt.-General Gabi Ashkenazi.

A strong consensus seemed to be emerging.  Ministers supported Olmert’s position that – in the spirit of Begin –Syriawould have to be stopped from getting nuclear weapons.  But there was one very prominent exception.

To the astonishment of his colleagues, Defense Minister Ehud Barak kept voicing strong objections.  He did not say that he was, in principle, opposed to bombing Syria; but he suggested tha tIsrael still had time, that there was no need to rush.

Barak even tried to prevent other generals from expressing their views in cabinet meetings, saying that he would be the sole defense or military voice.  Olmert overruled him on that claim.

A rift between the two Ehuds was growing.  Olmert tried to figure out Barak’s true motives.  He reached the conclusion that these were selfish political interests, and that Barak was prepared to sacrifice national interests for his own good.

Looming over the debate were tensions left by theLebanonwar in the summer of 2006, when Israe lbattled Hezbollah and many Israelis criticized the political and military decisionmakers’ deficiencies.  An investigatory committee was due to release its report in January 2008.  Olmert, Dagan, and Ashkenazi could not avoid the conclusion that Barak was waiting for that release – probably hoping that Olmert would be forced to resign and Barak could be prime minister again, or he could be defense minister in a cabinet that would give him more influence.

Barak argued against those suspicions, saying his true concern was that Olmert made hasty and unreliable military decisions.

Dagan, however, lost all faith in Barak.  And that would make a difference in future crises.

-o-

Ministers spoke of the possibility of the Israeli people facing thousands of retaliatory missiles flying in from Syria and from Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Some might even carry chemical weapons.

Despite those dark thoughts, the inner cabinet voted, 13 to 1, in favor of an attack.  Even Barak voted yes.  The only “no” was cast by the former Shin Bet director, Avi Dichter, now a cabinet minister, who feared the bloody toll that might be inflicted on Israeli civilians by Syrian retaliation.

Despite all the deliberations, meetings, and up to 2,500 Israelis involved in planning, the secret was not leaked or even hinted – quite astounding for a talkative society.

Everyone trusted with knowledge about the plan was required to sign a special secrecy pledge, even those who already had the highest security clearances, such as cabinet ministers and heads of intelligence agencies.  The only one exempted was Prime Minister Olmert.

On the night of the attack, September 6, Olmert was in the “Bor” (the Pit), the IDF’s situation room, flanked by a few assistants and military generals.   Eight F-16s took off from a base in northern Israel, flying westward, northward, and then eastward into Syria.

Unlike the “stupid” heavy bombs dropped in the Osirak attack in 1981, this timeIsraelused “smart” weapons.  Shortly after midnight, the pilots fired precision missiles from a safe distance.  Within two minutes, the attack was over.

To keep the Israelis safe, their advanced electronics jammed and blindedSyria’s air-defense system.  This time, on top of whatIsraelhad accomplished before, the electronic warfare was raised to a new level.  The Syrian radars seemed to be working, just fine, even when they were not. Syria’s defense personnel had no idea that their system, which detected absolutely nothing, was down.

The Israeli pilots adhered to radio silence and communicated with headquarters only after about 30 minutes.  Olmert, other top politicians, and generals were relieved and delighted to hear that the target was destroyed.

Despite their analysis thatSyriawould not retaliate, they could not rule out the possibility.  To minimize the chance, a firm decision was made to keep the entire affair secret.  If President Assad were not publicly humiliated, he would probably decide to do and say nothing.  Indeed ,Israel still has never publicly confirmed that it hit Syria that night.

October 27, 2013

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