It was a hot summer night in 2014, and former prime minister Ehud Olmert was sitting at his home in a Jerusalem suburb looking at some news sites online. He came across a story about how ISIS had taken over the ancient city of Deir al-Zor in northeast Syria, located along the banks of the mighty Euphrates River.
At first glance it didn’t mean much.
The civil war in Syria had erupted three years earlier, and while it had long ago turned into a humanitarian disaster, the world seemed to simply not care.
By 2014, though, what was happening in Syria was a full-fledged war, one that had exceeded all predictions of how long it would last and whether Bashar Assad would survive as the country’s leader. With help from Iran and Hezbollah, Assad was fighting back.
Assad’s use of chemical weapons had passed with little repercussion the previous summer, and while there was talk about coalition air strikes and the threat Islamic State (ISIS) posed to Europe, the West had pretty much fallen into a routine.
Countries condemned Syria’s leader but never took action.
The IDF was carefully following what was happening there. From its perspective, the war had nothing to do with Israel, and therefore there was very little it could do to make a difference. Yes, it felt a moral imperative to help the people being massacred, and as a result established a field hospital to treat the wounded.
But it knew to be careful not to be dragged into the war over the border.
If it did, Israel’s involvement would be used by Assad to claim that the civil war was actually a Zionist plot, and help him garner greater support at Israel’s expense.
But that evening, Olmert was focused on Deir al-Zor – the story he was reading was validating the decision he had made seven years earlier, in September 2007, a decision that if he had not taken it could have made the world an even more dangerous place.
THIS WEEK, after 10 years of official silence, the Military Censor finally lifted the ban on publishing what most of the world has known for years: Israel had discovered a nuclear reactor being built in northeastern Syria, and on September 6, 2007, sent its fighter jets to destroy the facility.
Construction on the reactor had started years before with the assistance of North Korea, and the facility was a replica of Korea’s own facility in Yongbyon.
What happened on September 6 was, for the most part, a success. Israel discovered a threat, took action, neutralized it, and avoided a larger war. But it could have gone differently.
Had Israel not learned of the existence of Syria’s reactor, what would the Middle East look like today? Israel could have found itself living under an unimaginable threat, and ISIS could have come into possession of a nightmarish capability.
Had Israel not stopped Syria in 2007, would it have been able to take preemptive military action to stop the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, as it reportedly has done dozens of times in recent years? Or would its hands have been tied out of fear that Assad would retaliate with nuclear weapons? What about Assad’s own people? He has used gas against them. Would he have used nuclear weapons, too, if he had them? Despite the years that have passed, even the smartest intelligence analysts cannot say for certain.
Then there is North Korea, the country that helped Syria build its nuclear reactor. The isolated regime in Pyongyang sold nuclear technology to Damascus at the same time it was conducting negotiations with the world to stop its own illicit nuclear program. North Korea proliferated, and got away with it.
Did this experience teach North Korea that it could do whatever it wants? That it could test nuclear weapons and fire long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles in the direction of Japan and South Korea, without consequence? And what would have happened had North Korea been held accountable and been made to pay a price for its proliferation and working with Syria? Would the situation in Asia look any different today? What happened 10 years ago is easy to write off as history, or as an event that is no longer relevant to Israel or today’s Middle East. But the opposite is true. In this one story – seemingly limited to the bombing of a nuclear reactor in Syria – we bear witness to the dangers that lurk around the globe, and how radical regimes – without ideological linkage – work closely to proliferate the most devastating weapon known to mankind.
The bombing of the reactor was preceded by months of deliberations – in Israel and in the US, where president George W. Bush genuinely considered attacking on his own.
But once Bush informed Olmert that he would not be attacking, an Israeli strike became the only option.
It was a continuation of what is known in Israel as the “Begin Doctrine” – named for Menachem Begin, the prime minister who ordered the bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981. The doctrine holds that Israel will not allow its enemies to obtain weapons that could pose an existential threat to the Jewish state.
This has now worked twice: Iraq in 1981, and Syria in 2007.
But what about Iran? Will Israel continue to stand by the Begin Doctrine, or is Iran a challenge that even mighty Israel cannot take on alone? As press accounts have shown in recent days, this story has a number of heroes. First and foremost are the pilots who risked their lives flying over Syria to bomb the reactor.
There are the intelligence officers and Mossad agents who discovered the facility, and the IDF generals who planned the operation while at the same time preparing for what could have turned into a massive regional war if Assad had retaliated.
There is also the political echelon.
It is true that there was bickering, mostly between the two Ehuds: Olmert and Ehud Barak, then the defense minister. But despite the political tension between the two – Olmert genuinely thought Barak was stalling for time so he could later get the credit for the attack – the security cabinet ultimately acted responsibly, and after a series of deliberations, made the right decision. Many ministers at the time talk today of that experience as a model case of how the government is meant to work.
And finally, there is Olmert. The reactor was discovered about half a year after the Second Lebanon War.
Israel had barely recovered from a war that had exposed failures in the IDF and throughout the government.
The military was in the midst of some of the most comprehensive reforms in modern times, and a state-appointed commission of inquiry was gunning for the prime minister, the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff.
To be presented at that moment with such a threat and to manage it successfully while maintaining complete secrecy was no small feat.
Moreover, do not underestimate how difficult it was for everyone to remain silent, especially for an embattled politician like Olmert.
But he did. He never spoke about bombing the reactor – not during the operation, not when the Winograd Commission of Inquiry into the Second Lebanon War was active, and not when he was out of office and facing a police investigation, when taking credit for the bombing would have scored him points.
It is true that Olmert will go down in history as the first prime minister to go to jail: He was convicted of a crime and he paid the price. But we also shouldn’t forget operations that he oversaw as the country’s leader.
Over a decade later, he is finally getting the credit he deserves.