Israel was behind the 2007 destruction of a nuclear reactor that was being built in northeastern Syria, the IDF Military Censor has now cleared for publication.
Until now, Israeli media have been blocked from publishing details of the reactor’s discovery and the decision- making process that led to its destruction – even as many of those details were being published in the foreign press and in the memoirs of former president George W. Bush and vice president Dick Cheney.
The Mossad confirmed the existence of the Syrian reactor in March 2007, when the agency obtained photographs of the reactor that was being built in the northeastern Deir al-Zor province, close to the Euphrates River.
The pictures had been requested by the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, which had suspicions that Damascus was engaging in rogue nuclear activity.
Military Intelligence had seen the structure being built during routine satellite scans of the country. Because it was built like a regular building, it was not immediately clear what the structure was. Then-head of Military Intelligence Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin convinced Mossad chief Meir Dagan to send agents to obtain additional, conclusive intelligence.
According to Amir Peretz, who was defense minister at the time, “We had the intelligence but then came the dilemmas,” both military and diplomatic.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post,
Peretz explained that in April 2007, he convened his first meeting on the facility with top Israeli officials, during which he made the decision to prepare all options to destroy the facility.
In the months that followed, prime minister Ehud Olmert embarked on a diplomatic push to get Bush to attack the reactor. In July 2007, after Bush decided not to attack, Olmert convened his security cabinet, which ultimately concluded that the reactor had to be destroyed.
Colonel A. on the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (Marc Israel Sellem/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
“It was a threat that we couldn’t live with,” one member of the security cabinet at the time told the Post
. “Syria with nuclear weapons would have posed an existential threat to the State of Israel.”
Some sources have suggested that Olmert wanted to carry out the strike as quickly as possible, but that once Peretz lost the Labor Party leadership and his position as defense minister to Ehud Barak, plans to destroy the facility were delayed. They say the 2006 Second Lebanon War was always a presence in the room and that Barak was simply waiting for the final report of the Winograd Commission on the war to lead Olmert to resign and allow Barak to get all the credit for the strike.
Meanwhile, Fox News requested information on the reactor from the Pentagon under the US Freedom of Information Act. Israel was informed of the request. Fearing a leak to the media would lead to the operation being compromised, the security cabinet deliberated on the strike one final time on September 5. According to The New Yorker
magazine, all ministers voted to strike, with the exception of Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who abstained.
Following the meeting, Olmert, Barak and then-foreign minister Tzipi Livni were given the green light to decide the final characteristics of the attack. They then withdrew to a side room where IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi recommended carrying out the strike that night.
Just before midnight on September 5, 2007, four F-15s and four F-16s took off for the al-Kibar facility. The planes entered Syrian airspace via Turkey, and sometime between 12:40 and 12:53 a.m., the pilots called out the operation’s codeword, “Arizona,” signaling that some 17 tons of bombs had been dropped on the facility and it had been destroyed.
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