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'Olmert bombed Syria despite US diplomacy'
By HERB KEINON
06/14/2012
In exclusive with 'Post', former US foreign policy advisor Elliott Abrams defends Netanyahu over critical State Comptroller report.
 
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert decided in September 2007 to bomb the al-Kabir nuclear facility in Syria after then-president George W. Bush told him the US had opted for the diplomatic route and would try to get the International Atomic Energy Agency to close the site, Elliott Abrams told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.

Asked about Wednesday’s Israeli State Comptroller’s Report chastising the government for a haphazard decision-making process, Abrams said Bush was provided with impeccable options, policy papers and intelligence.

“We took it all to the president – covert options, military options, diplomatic options – and he chose the wrong option,” said Abrams, who at the time was the deputy national security advisor in the White House. “It is a mistake to believe that the process itself will provide you with the right answer.”

The State Comptroller’s Report was highly critical of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for not fully empowering his National Security Council, as mandated by law, and for a sloppy, informal decision-making process leading up to the Mavi Marmara raid in May 2010.

Abrams, however, used the Syrian nuclear facility issue to illustrate that what is more important than thorough preparation and a good process is the right people making the right decisions. He also said that some of the best White House meetings were informal ones where no notes were taken.

He said that his preferred option in the summer of 2007, when intelligence information emerged that the Syrians were building a nuclear facility, was for Israel to take it out in order for Jerusalem to rebuild its deterrence capability following the Second Lebanon War a year earlier. He added that then-vice president Dick Cheney argued for the US to bomb the facility itself to rebuild America’s deterrence capability.

Cheney, in his memoirs In My Time, wrote that not only would a US strike demonstrate America’s seriousness concerning nonproliferation, “it would enhance our credibility in that part of the world, taking us back to where we were in 2003, after we had taken down the Taliban, taken down Saddam’s regime, and gotten Gaddafi to turn over his nuclear program.”

But the option Bush chose, some six weeks before Israel acted, was the one preferred by secretary of state Condoleezza Rice: Make the existence of the facility public and then go to the IAEA and UN and build an international consensus to get the Syrians to close it.

Abrams said he thought the idea was “absurd” and that Syrian President Bashar Assad would defy the IAEA and do nothing.

When Bush informed Olmert of the US decision in July 2007, Abrams recalled, Olmert said the strategy was unacceptable to Israel. It was clear to everyone that from this point on there would be no sharing of plans and that “Israel would let us know afterward,” he said.

Indeed, according to Abrams, Israel informed Washington immediately after the September 7, 2007, strike. A decision was then made not to “rub the Syrians’ nose in the matter” by making it public, thinking that if everyone remained quiet Assad would not be compelled to hit back. Indeed, news of the attack began trickling out in the Turkish media a couple of weeks afterward when jettisoned parts of Israeli fighter jets were found in Turkish territory.

Relating to the comptroller’s report, which he had only read about, Abrams – here for a conference on US-Israel relations that begins on Monday at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Ramat Gan – said that in the US the National Security Council serves as a powerful counterweight to the military on national security policy. In Israel, though, where the IDF is a dominant institution, there is no equivalent counterbalance.

He said both “no” and “yes” when asked whether he thought the IDF wielded too much policy-making power in Israel.

“No, in that given the security situation here it would be hard to define what is ‘too much,’” he said. “[The IDF] should be a critical factor in most decisions.”

The “yes,” he added, was because it takes a lot of determination and political strength to disagree with the military, “because they may be right, and [the prime minister] may be wrong.”

If the prime minister were to go against the military, Abrams said, he would inevitably be met with leaks by officers asking what he truly knows about security matters and whether military issues should not be within the purview of the military.

This, in turn, could lead to public relations and political problems, with the prime minister asking himself at the end of the day why he needs the headache and whether it would not just be wiser to go along with the military’s position.

In that type of scenario, Abrams said, the prime minister must be extremely determined to want to go up against the defense establishment.
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