One day, when they make a movie about Israel’s strike against Syria’s nascent nuclear reactor on September 5, 2007, I hope they use the Hebrew name for the title: “Operation Out of the Box.” It says so much more than the English name which, for reasons I have yet to discover, is Operation Orchard.
But I shouldn’t complain: Until this week, 04:59 a.m. on March 21 to be precise, the attack that ended Syrian plans, or at least means, for nuclear capability didn’t have a proper name in any language.
This week, the Military Censor lifted the ban that had been in place for more than a decade and allowed Israel to take credit for it.
The strike itself had long been attributed to Israel by foreign news outlets, which were then quoted by Israeli media in a rather unwieldy way. No wonder the Israeli press wanted the gag order lifted. Finally this week Israeli sources were able to publish their own material. It was fascinating – and definitely out of the box. Piece by piece, snippet by snippet, Israel’s various intelligence bodies had figured out what Bashar Assad was quietly planning. What, where and how. The why was obvious.
Unlike with Saddam Hussein’s reactor at Osirak in Iraq, which Israel knocked out in a similarly stunning operation in June 1981, the Syrian dictator did not boast of his nuclear plans.
Given that only Assad’s absolutely closest circle knew of the reactor, obtaining the details was an intelligence success of the type that makes you think of “intelligence” in both senses of the word. Former Jerusalem Post
editor-in-chief David Makovsky, writing in The New Yorker
in September 2012, was the first to present a clear enough picture that could even then provide fodder for movie makers.
In an article called “The Silent Strike: How Israel bombed a Syrian nuclear installation and kept it secret,” Makovsky wrote: “In the first days of March 2007, agents from the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, made a daring raid on the Vienna home of Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission. Othman was in town attending a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors, and had stepped out.
In less than an hour, the Mossad operatives swept in, extracted top-secret information from Othman’s computer, and left without a trace.”
Israeli officials this week were still reticent about confirming such details. Not only is secrecy a deeply entrenched and essential characteristic of the espionage trade, there are still experts, like former Mossad head Tamir Pardo, who think it unwise to brag of the raid.
THERE ARE differing opinions on why Israel stayed quiet about it for so long. One obvious reason is that Assad also kept silent. Had Israel in September 2007 openly claimed responsibility for the operation – whatever you want to call it – many thought it could have forced Assad to react and set the whole region on the path to war.
Israel has recently publicly noted strikes in Syrian territory – often aimed at preventing the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. That does not mean, of course, that everything is, or should be, out in the open.
One of the most intriguing questions is why announce it now? Cynics and conspiracy theorists point to the publication of the book by former prime minister Ehud Olmert, who used his time in prison for fraud and bribery to put pen to paper.
Among Olmert’s biggest regrets must surely be that ahead of going to jail he could not publish his greatest success as prime minister – ordering the strike to go ahead. (It must be right up there with regretting his corrupt behavior or being caught, although in an interview he gave last week he seemed more contrary than contrite.) The timing of the strike itself was particularly delicate for Olmert in the wake of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, a conflict that caught the country, and its military, by surprise. Olmert was strongly censured by the Winograd Commission, which investigated the war in which 44 Israeli civilians and 119 IDF soldiers were killed.
Ironically, at the time, Olmert seemed intent on reaching a peace agreement with Syria, even at the price of giving up the strategic Golan Heights.
Israelis – and the sane world – should be doubly grateful that the country did not hand the Golan to the butcher from Damascus. Groups that broke away from ISIS and al-Qaeda are still fighting on the other side of the border. And if there’s one thing worse than someone like Assad getting his bloodstained hands on nuclear weapons, it’s the nightmare of jihadist terrorists obtaining nonconventional weapons – a scenario that still cannot be dismissed in places ranging from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Libya to Chechnya.
THERE IS no doubt that Israel’s publication of the operation sends a powerful message.
Syria today is a shadow of its 2007 self. Assad realizes that Israel has certain redlines and, unlike former US president Barack Obama, is serious about them not being crossed. It sends a message to Iran, where the regime continues to call for wiping Israel off the map and threatens non- Shi’ite populations. It is also a warning to North Korea, which actively helped Syria with the construction of its plutonium project at al-Kibar and continues to be Iran’s nuclear partner. It might also be sending a signal to the US: With or without you, Israel will not – cannot – tolerate hostile countries with nuclear capabilities.
Following the lifting of the Military Censor’s ban, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement saying: “The government of Israel, the IDF and the Mossad prevented Syria from developing a nuclear capability. For this they are deserving of all praise. Israel’s policy has been and remains consistent – to prevent our enemies from arming themselves with nuclear weapons.”
The publication has its own deterrent effect. As Kan Broadcasting Corporation Arab affairs reporter Eran Singer noted in a special radio broadcast on Wednesday, if Israel had this type of intelligence means then, imagine what it has today.
Unfortunately, then and now, political infighting is marring what should be a cause for celebration. In particular Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert traded slurs. Many names and egos are eager to claim credit to boost career aspirations or at least improve their public image.
Not everyone sees it as an unmitigated success, however. Former Mossad head Pardo on Wednesday criticized what he said was an initial intelligence failure: that Israel had for years been unaware of the fact that Syria, a hostile neighboring country, was building the reactor.
Israeli intelligence, acting out of the box, eventually proved itself. I would ask where was the UN? The United Nations Atomic Energy Commission was apparently unaware of the reactor. Not for the first time I wonder what is the point of having UN peacekeepers along Israel’s borders.
Members of UNDOF (the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) on the Syrian side of the Golan had to be rescued by Israel when al-Qaeda took over the area (taking some UN peacekeepers hostage) and the site of the demolished reactor was later held by ISIS.
Then-Israel Air Force head Eliezer Shkedi told the pilots and navigators that the operation was “of the utmost importance to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Ten years later, in the wake of the turmoil that followed the Arab Spring, it is clearer than ever that the significance of the operation goes far beyond Israel’s borders.
Even now there are many people involved in Operation Orchard (or Operation Out of the Box) who cannot be named and whose faces can’t be shown. The free world should salute them. Credit where credit’s due.[email protected]