Ehud Barak, former Israeli prime minister and incoming defence minister, outgoing Defense Minister Amir Peretz and Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, chief of Israel's armed forces, attend an official changeover ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv June 19, 2007.
(photo credit: YONATHAN WEITZMAN / REUTERS)
Six years after David Makovsky published an extensive article about Israel’s 2007 bombing of a nuclear reactor in Syria and how it was kept secret, the former Jerusalem Post editor said Israel should take pride in its operational success.
After a decade of ambiguity, the Israeli military on Wednesday took responsibility for destroying a nuclear reactor built in the northeastern Syrian province of Deir al-Zor in 2007, with all details about the strike attributed to “foreign reports” like Makovsky’s 2012 report in The New Yorker.
“It was a very important mission which worked. In 1981 Israel destroyed the Osirak reactor in Iraq – and now we know it destroyed the Syrian reactor in 2007,” Makovsky told the Post
in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
“It’s a case where Israeli leadership navigated a crisis very wisely and achieved the maximum result. Israel should feel pride,” he said.
Less than a year after the release of the Winograd report into the failures of the government and the IDF in the Second Lebanon War, then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “was able to internalize all the complaints and get Israel to respond to a real-live present danger,” Makovsky said.
After having received the concrete evidence that a facility being built in the desert of Syria’s northern Deir al-Zor province just months after the end of the Second Lebanon War, Israel decided on an operation with the lowest signature possible in an effort to cover up any Israeli role – in order to prevent any embarrassment to Syrian President Bashar Assad which could have forced him to respond in ways that could have spiraled into war.
According to Makovsky, Israel’s ability to correctly understand and predict Assad’s psychological mindset was a major success of the operation.
As the gag order was lifted Wednesday, there was much criticism by former officials regarding Israel’s intelligence failure of not picking up on the nuclear reactor until mere months before it went operational.
“This is a sign of Israel’s maturity,” Makovsky said, adding that “Israelis will admit privately that they thought they knew everything going on in Syria, but it was going on for six years before. It’s good that now there is the admission that this needs to be looked at, but its a sign of strength that there is self-criticism.”
Nonetheless, a lot of details about the operation are still under military censorship, including intelligence gathering capabilities. But, Makovsky said, the risks to lift the gag order could no longer outweigh the advantages.
“After a decade, people thought it’s safe now to release the information,” he said.
WHILE THE LIFTING of the gag order may be related to the release of tell-all books by Olmert and former defense minister Ehud Barak, it could also be related to Syria’s civil war which has torn the country apart.
“If Olmert could have told his story in 2007 it could have revived his political fortunes,” after his failure in Lebanon, Makovsky said, adding that “you have to give the guy credit for making the right decisions at the right moment not to disclose the operation.”
Dr. Ronen Bergman, senior correspondent for military and intelligence affairs for Yediot Aharonot
and author of Rise and Kill First – The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations
, published in January, suggested one of the reasons for lifting the gag order on the affair after 11 years, in a call organized by the Israel Project.
“It sends a message,” Bergman said: “When Israel is left alone, it reacts and with extreme force.”
Israel’s defense establishment saw that the operation to destroy the reactor was “vital to the survival of the Jewish nation,” Bergman said, adding that there are similar feelings now regarding Iran’s continuing entrenchment on Israel’s northern border.
“There are significant similarities between what happened 11 years ago and what is happening now,” Bergman stated, referring to the US not using its leverage with Russia to stop Iran from deploying in Syria.
“The Trump administration, when it needed to intervene, did not,” he continued, adding that Israeli officials are extremely frustrated about how it has failed to act in the Middle East.
“The message is when Israel is left alone, it will react. And as it reacted and used force 11 years ago and destroyed the North Korean facility in Syria, it would today again, and destroy any Iranian attempt to further deploy military, guerrilla [and] Hezbollah forces in Syria.”
And that is a sentiment echoed by Makovsky.
“If there’s a lesson from 2007, it is that history proves that when a country says it wants to destroy Israel, it has to be taken seriously. Israel might not react now, but it should be a cautionary tale that, if the sunset clause isn’t addressed, Israel will be vigilant. It will not allow Iran to get a nuclear bomb.”
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