Book review: Shadow Strike

Yaakov Katz’s new book tells the fascinating story behind Israel’s covert operation against Syria’s nuclear reactor.

This undated image released by the US government shows the nuclear reactor under construction in Syria that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike on September 6, 2007 (photo credit: US GOVERNMENT HANDOUT / REUTERS)
This undated image released by the US government shows the nuclear reactor under construction in Syria that was destroyed in an Israeli air strike on September 6, 2007
As we approached the large black iron gates in our beaten up white van, we were stopped by a pair of young, muscular security guards flashing M-16 rifles. At the sight of the old clunker, they no doubt assumed we were just another delivery truck.
They peered in the car and, with a look of surprise, quickly waved us through. We were led into the garage, and as the car came to a halt, I stepped out with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following right behind.
It was the summer of 2007, and I had recently joined Netanyahu’s opposition staff as adviser for Foreign Affairs. This was my first visit to the Prime Minister’s Office in this capacity. As we made our way up the stairs from the tunnel, I slowly took it all in. Our goal was to get Netanyahu back into this building – not as a visitor but as the tenant.
My thoughts were interrupted as we entered the Aquarium, the inner sanctuary of the Prime Minister’s Office, named as such because of the large glass wall at its entrance. It is behind that glass that the prime minister’s closest advisers work, where the security cabinet meets, and where the personal office of the prime minister is nestled in the far corner.
We sat momentarily on the antiquated leather couches in the Aquarium hallway before Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came out. I had met Olmert numerous times over the years when he was still a member of Likud, and he greeted me warmly and congratulated me on joining Netanyahu’s team. He proceeded to invite Netanyahu inside his office and get the meeting started.
As I sat and waited, one of Olmert’s advisers, an old friend, came out to keep me company. She explained to me that there is a legal obligation for the prime minister to meet and update the head of the opposition on a regular basis. I was told that this meeting, like those before and after, were routine.
One hour later Netanyahu exited, and we quickly made our way out the glass doors and down to the car. As we drove off, Netanyahu stared out the narrow window with a look of contemplation on his face, lost in thought. I sensed that this meeting was not just another routine meeting.
Later I would find out that this took place just a few weeks before Olmert ordered the attack of the Syrian nuclear reactor.
What I was not privy to in that meeting of prime ministers I devoured years later in the pages of Yaakov Katz’s spectacular new book, Shadow Strike.
While Shadow Strike reads like a novel, Katz’s account of this pivotal episode and its importance in modern Israel history is not lost.
The book begins with Olmert following the civil war in Syria and the world fright that ensued after ISIS conquered large swaths of the wartorn country. Olmert wonders where Israel, and for that matter the region and entire world, would be today if Israel had not acted just a few years earlier.
Olmert was a strong believer in what has become known as the Begin Doctrine: never allow Israel’s enemies to acquire the means to threaten it existentially. Upon learning of the Syrian nuclear facility, Olmert acts decisively to meet this challenge.
Katz walks the reader through the Mossad and Military Intelligence clandestine efforts in both identifying and then validating the intelligence that led them to an isolated building in the Syrian dessert.
In the aftermath of the Second Lebanon War, a battered and bruised Olmert enlists former Mossad chief Meir Dagan to convince the US to act on this pending threat. With Israel’s daunting intelligence in tow, Dagan presents hard evidence of North Korean involvement in the building of a nuclear facility in al-Kabir, Syria, leaving a shocked White House, CIA, and NSA.
Over the following weeks and months Israel shares additional intelligence, and anxiously awaits the US decision. Hope remained that president George W. Bush – as part of his post 9/11 efforts to prevent rogue countries from acquiring nuclear weapons – would take the necessary military action. In parallel, Olmert consults with his defense ministers – first Peretz and then Barak – and orders the Israeli Defense Force to prepare its own military options.
Katz takes us through the inner deliberations of a US administration with conflicting personalities and diverse worldviews: vice president Dick Cheney calling for US military action, while secretary of state Condoleezza Rice pushes for diplomacy. While Cheney was the president’s great confidant in matters of national security, and undoubtedly the most influential vice president in American history, it was ultimately Rice who had the support of the NSC and the Pentagon against military engagement. Being bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush decided against any action at this time.
Upon hearing from Bush that the US will initially attempt the diplomatic track, a stern and resolute Olmert responds that Israel will do what it has to do.
Katz introduces the reader to the senior players in Israel’s Military Intelligence, Air Force, Mossad, and IDF General Staff as they meticulously and cautiously map out numerous possibilities for attack.
The reader is privy to the internal dilemmas and debates of the Israeli political leadership. While Katz – editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post – does not spare Olmert criticism for his role in the Second Lebanon War, he is portrayed as handling this epic challenge with wisdom and determination.
When the attack finally does transpire, its success is overshadowed by the fear of a potential Syrian military retaliation that could lead to an all-out war. The strategy adopted to avoid such an outcome was coined the “deniability zone” whereby Israel did not take credit or acknowledge the attack, thus allowing Syrian President Bashar Assad to ignore the incident and pretend the nuclear facility was never built.
Over the past decade, Israel’s role in the attack was reported in the international media, but only recently did Israel officially acknowledge it. Shadow Strike is the first detailed account of this historic event.
Whereas our story tells the tale of Israel’s attack on Syria, Katz cannot help but finish by comparing and contrasting the situation with the Iranian march toward developing nuclear weapons. Although a much more complex challenge militarily and diplomatically, the reader is left to consider whether the days of the Begin Doctrine have elapsed, or whether Israel can still remove existential weapons from virulent enemies.
A master storyteller, Katz magically traverses between the US and Israel, between the Mossad and Military Intelligence, and between diplomacy and politics.
While Shadow Strike is a mesmerizing page-turner, Katz is able to poignantly convey the gravity of the challenges many world leaders face while their actions decide the fates of millions.