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Before and after picture of building struck during Operation Orchard in Syria.

It was a known fact throughout the Middle East that Israel had carried out the air strike - in fact, US officials had actually confirmed it shortly after the fact. And, indirectly, none other than the then Opposition, Leader Bibi Netanyahu, in a TV interview when asked about 'foreign reports' about a mysterious Israeli operation across the northern border. Bibi simply said that he 'wholeheartedly' supported such an operation. However Israeli censorship totally banned the Israeli media from reporting that Israel had carried out the daring mission. That is until now. Suddenly like another bolt out of the blue, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the chief Israeli censor usually a high-ranking IDF officer and a special public committee have taken the wraps completely off. Not only that, senior military and intelligence figures have been given clearance to discuss their role in the operation, without having to first clear it with the official censor. During my fifty year career as a war correspondent and political reporter, I have never seen anything like it! The actual pilots, Intelligence chiefs, the Mossad official involved up to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, all taking a piece of the media frenzy and vying for part of the glory. 

Then let's not forget the public confrontation between Mossad Director Tamir Pardo who blamed IDF Intelligence for failing to uncover the secret reactor designed to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. Pardo called it a 'resounding failure' that a 'band of his Mossad fighters had to rectify'. In return, former IDF Intelligence Amos Yadlin retorted that it was one of his own officers who sensed that something fishy was going on in Syria and pointed the Mossad in the right direction and eventually to uncover the reactor before it went 'hot'. If it had gone hot, it might have made it impossible to bomb from the air because this could spread nuclear contamination over a wide area of Syria.

In any case, writing in the Yisrael Hayom newspaper, the Mossad's former deputy director Ram Ben Barak even disclosed:

 'A foreign source tipped off Israel about the nuclear reactor being built in Syria. This was unclear information that lead to the conclusion that President Assad was building a nuclear reactor, which took me totally by surprise... under our very noses! Even Assad's closest aides were kept in the dark. Director Meir Dagan ordered us to go all out to prepare agents and conduct an intensive investigation. After a year of intensive operations, we found the 'golden lead' that proved a nuclear reactor was being secretly built in Syria. Dagan took this info directly to Prime Minister Olmert. We discovered this almost at the very last minute to react before it went hot. Olmert than ordered the Israeli Air Force to prepare a crash program for an air strike.'

Olmert also immediately apprised US President George Bush who decided against a US attack on the nuclear reactor proposing to take the diplomatic route. In the end, Olmert informed Bush that Israel could not wait and was going to strike. Bush replied: 'Mr. Prime Minister, do what you have to do to protect your country!' 

The rest is history...

There has been more fallout between Olmert and the then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who are now bitter enemies. Olmert charges that Barak had cold feet and wanted to delay the air strike. Barak contends there was still time to act and he wanted to make certain that Israel's plan was perfected. He noted that Olmert acted irresponsibly during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 when Barak was not defense minister. 

In light of the current verbal fireworks, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman now says he regrets agreeing to lift the censorship on the secret operation. Not only that, some experts and commentators are worried that strategic secrets have been revealed to Israel's enemies like Iran. 

Who gains? 

The argument has been that by never admitting to the air strike, Israel enabled President Assad to simply ignore it, as if it had never happened. Otherwise, he would have been forced to retaliate against Israel in order to save face. Remember that in 2006, Assad had a huge army armed with thousands of rockets and missiles that could have pulverized Israel. 

Retired Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi has recalled that he was faced with the daunting task of having to prepare for all-out war with Syria while not tipping off the Syrians that Israeli aircraft were planning a major strike on the nuclear reactor. On the night of the attack, Gen. Ashkenazi first went as planned to the wedding of his secretary so as not to show something was brewing. It also transpired that over 2,000 Israelis military, diplomatic and political figures were in the know but nothing leaked about the top secret operation. Even the pilots trained for the operation without knowing that their target was a secret nuclear reactor in Syria. They were only informed hours before they took off at night. When it was over they had dropped seventeen tons of explosives on the reactor, everyone on target, and the flight commander was able to announce the code word 'Arizona' loud and clear back to IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv signaling that the Syrian-North Korean nuclear reactor now lay in rubble. The Israeli strategy of going mum worked. Assad denied there had been any nuclear reactor brushing it off by saying: 'It was an empty building being repaired'. It was no big deal that obligated him to retaliate against the Jewish state. One Syrian commentator went one better when he ridiculed the ruins as 'a poultry farm!' 

Message to Iran & even Russia... 

This is a little more tricky. The nuclear reactor in Syria obviously posed a clear and present danger to the Jewish State leaving it no option. Olmert had simply carried out the 'Begin Doctrine' of taking military action against any nuclear threat to annihilate Israel. This was initially enacted by former Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1981 when the Israeli cabinet launched a similar air strike to destroy Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor, being built by France, before it went hot. 

But today the situation in Syria has become more complicated. Unlike the situation in 2006, the Syrian army has been decimated by the civil war and no longer poses a serious threat to Israel. But today there is Iran that is continuously trying to expand its military presence in Syria and turn the Golan Heights into a forward base the way it has with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. By going public over the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor over ten years ago, the Netanyahu government of today is also signaling to one and all that it also will act to defend Israel's strategic interests. He has made this point by bombing Iranian arms shipments through Syria to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. But no less important, Bibi has stressed this to Russian President Vladimir Putin in direct relation to Iran's attempt to expand its military presence in southern Syria. At present, it appears that Putin has no problem with this.

There may also be an internal Israeli spin-off. Considerable credit is being lavished on former Prime minister Ehud Olmert for his successful handling of the Syrian nuclear reactor without becoming embroiled in an all-out war with Syria. Credit where credit is due. Olmert did protect Israel from a dire threat; even if he later wound up behind bars for financial malfeasance while serving as PM. 

Let's take it one step back to consider how some Israelis will view this. So what if Olmert was crooked, he saved Israel from a Syrian nuclear threat. That trumps his doing jail time. This brings us to Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is facing police investigations into his financial malfeasance with three state witnesses, who are willing testify against Bibi. But isn't Bibi also doing a good job defending Israel from the threat of a nuclear Iran, Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and those 'lone-wolfs' on the West Bank and inside Israel? 


The bottom line is that when it comes to who benefits from the Syrian affair it may very well be Bibi. Israel is a country at war, and many voters will prefer a tried and experienced leader who may not be clean as the driven snow, as opposed to newcomers who are novices in coping with the numerous and dangerous threats facing the country today.


Political Analyst David Essing


David Essing


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