Imagine the NFL Super Bowl for a minute. Then imagine one team winning the game and the NFL championship on a last minute 70-yard touchdown pass. Then imagine that team waiting 10 years to do their celebratory victory dance in the end zone.
That is pretty much what happened this week with the belated admission by Israel that it indeed was responsible for that attack back in September 2007 on a Syrian nuclear reactor under construction.
This admission triggered not only our own end zone chest-beating, but also something not generally seen in NFL victory dances: teammates pummeling each other over who really deserves credit for the score. Who called the play? Who read the defense? Who executed it to perfection?
When the dust settles and all the battles for credit are forgotten, one question will still need to be answered: Why now?
Why did the defense establishment – which for over a decade was determined to keep a blackout on any information coming out about the bombing from Israel – finally agree this week to lift the ban on publication of the details?
A number of ideas have been proffered over the last few days, from the far-fetched notion that it was designed to boost the sales of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s new memoirs, to the equally implausible notion that it was meant to boost Olmert in the public eye and perhaps even pave his way to a political comeback, to the more likely suggestion that it was designed as a message to Iran:
“Don’t test us, we have done this before, we can do it again.”
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a laconic statement on Wednesday: “The government of Israel, the IDF and the Mossad prevented Syria from developing a nuclear capability. Israel’s policy has been and remains consistent – to prevent our enemies from arming themselves with nuclear weapons.”
Or, even more to the point, as Col. Amir – one of the pilots of the mission, who was quoted in Haaretz
– said: “An existential threat to the State of Israel arose here and we dealt with it, the way the air force had dealt with the reactor in Iraq in the past. For me, today it connects with our ability to remove threats in distant countries in the third circle [Iran]. Since the attack in Syria, we have also improved wonderfully – in intelligence, in our range of action, in our ability to attack secretly.”
Another explanation for the timing is that the original reason for not taking responsibility for the action is no longer relevant. According to this reasoning, the original decision to remain mum was to provide Syrian President Bashar Assad with “plausible deniability”: if you don’t make a public spectacle of the attack, if you don’t rub Assad’s nose in it, if you don’t spike the ball in the end zone, he will not feel the need to react in order to save face.
A decade and a very bloody civil war later, this is no longer a consideration. Firstly, because people generally don’t take face-saving action for an event that took place more than 10 years ago, and secondly, because even if he wanted to, Assad is currently in no position to pick a fight with Israel.
One date that should be kept in mind when trying to decipher the timing of Jerusalem’s acknowledgment of the attack is May 12 – the date by which US President Donald Trump will have to decide whether to renew sanctions on Iran that were suspended with the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015.
Trump has given his European partners – France, Britain and Germany – until that day to fix the nuclear deal. If not, the US is likely to pull out of it.
The question then becomes, what will Iran do if Trump does indeed walk away from the deal?
While Netanyahu has said there won’t be much the Iranians can do if the US walks away, since their economy will suffer severely and lead to increased internal strife inside the country, the Europeans – who are currently looking at how they can fix the deal to keep Trump inside it – are saying Netanyahu’s projections are wishful thinking and that if the US cancels the deal the Iranians will make a mad dash toward the nuclear finish line.
Within this context, Israel’s very public admission of the attack in Syria sends a message to both the Europeans and the Iranians.
To the Europeans, it says: “If you want to prevent a recurrence of what happened in Syria, fix the deal and ensure that the US remains inside it so Israel won’t be forced to take action.”
And to the Iranians, the message is: “If the Americans walk out, don’t race to acquire nuclear arms, because – as the Syrian attack illustrates – we can, and we will, stop you.”