'I've got your back': How Israel scored tacit U.S. support for bombing Syria

Bush looked intently at Olmert: “I didn’t think you would have the ‘courage’ to do it, Ehud.”

Former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ehud Olmert meet at the White House, 2008 (photo credit: JASON REED/REUTERS)
Former president George W. Bush and former prime minister Ehud Olmert meet at the White House, 2008
(photo credit: JASON REED/REUTERS)
The two leaders sat in the private residence at the White House: President George W. Bush and President Ehud Olmert.
Both held lit cigars in celebration of the bombing of the Syrian reactor. Bush looked intently at Olmert: “I didn’t think you would have the ‘courage’ to do it, Ehud.” Olmert responded, “I told you I would do it.” Bush responded, “Well, at least I’m taller than you, Ehud.”
Like two little boys, the two men stood back-to-back in a photo-op attempt to measure their height.
George Bush and Ehud Olmert (credit: Eric Draper)George Bush and Ehud Olmert (credit: Eric Draper)
I first saw the picture when it stood for a time on a credenza behind Olmert’s desk.
It was signed by President Bush with the words, “I’ve got your back.”
The scenario began on September 6, 2007, at an eastern Syria complex which allegedly housed a nuclear reactor.
It was being built with the aid of the North Koreans, according to The New Yorker.
The attack on the Syrian site was the result of a raid that had taken place in Vienna months earlier and that which Israel has never taken responsibility for. According to former Jerusalem Post editor David Makovsky, writing in The New Yorker in 2012, Mossad agents had dared to infiltrate the home of Ibrahim Othman, the chief of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission. Makovsky wrote: “Othman was in town attending a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors, and had stepped out. In less than an hour, the Mossad operatives swept in, extracted top-secret information from Othman’s computer, and left without a trace.”
As a result, the Mossad learned that apparently the rumors of a nuclear reactor being erected in Syria were true. The decision-making process to demolish the Syrian reactor began with what would be a battle between two Ehuds: prime minister Olmert and defense minister Ehud Barak. Barak charged Olmert with being too precipitous and not making proper preparations, while Barak thought the prime minister was overly-enthusiastic.
Colonel A. on the 2007 IAF bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor site. (Marc Israel Sellem/IDF Spokesperson"s Unit)
While the two men debated the incursion, Olmert took the unprecedented step of contacting Bush to seek US assistance. Bush was aware only of a “well-hidden facility in eastern Syria” and declined American aid. He felt there was no well-defined rationale for an attack.
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In a meeting with prime minister Olmert, he told me Bush had offered the services of then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to try to work out a diplomatic solution to the problem. Olmert said his response was, “We don’t need diplomacy. I need you to take it out – or I will.”
When Bush declined, Olmert gave the green light.
The prime minister chose, however, to follow in the footsteps of Menachem Begin, who ordered the destruction of Iraq’s Osiris reactor in 1981. He made two slight deviations: Olmert sought input from President Bush, and then after the fact chose not to inform the entire world of Israel’s attack.
When the Israel Air Force leveled the site northwest of Damascus during the nighttime hours of September 6, 2007, worldwide awareness was centered on the fact that Syria had nuclear ambitions rather than on the means of the destruction.
Israel’s resolve to create an aura of obscurity around the incursion was an effort to maintain Syrian President Bashar Assad’s stature while deterring a retaliatory strike. With over a decade of hindsight, it seems Olmert was correct in making that choice: war was averted, and Israel sustained no losses.
Apart from the obvious contentious responses from Iran and North Korea, global leaders maintained silence.
Today, the international community can look back with gratitude to the Israelis for eliminating what would have been an even greater threat from Islamic State had that terrorist group been able to secure nuclear devices from either Iraq or Syria.
In subsequent years, data emerged regarding the Israeli mission. As the aircraft completed their task, one simple word, “Arizona,” was whispered over the airwaves. It was a confirmation that the mission had been completed, the site destroyed, and not one Israeli pilot had been lost. When that was conveyed to prime minister Olmert, he sent a communiqué to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey informing him of the circumstances surrounding the attack and asking him to apprise President Assad in Syria. Regardless of the wording of the dispatch, the message was, “Don’t build another nuclear plant.”
The Syrian strongman was caught in what some would call “a rock and a hard place.”
He could not readily decry Israel’s destruction of a nuclear reactor that he avowed was non-existent. Silence was also exercised by Olmert and the Israelis. According to the Syrian Arab News Agency, the IAF simply “dropped some ammunition” and returned to Israeli airspace, and erroneously commented that no damage had been done.
Since the Syrian attack in 2007, Israel had been reticent to announce security strikes beyond its boundaries. Such occurrences are often reported by foreign entities that have “somehow” attained video recordings or photographs.
An ambiguous statement may be forthcoming from Israeli sources, but details are generally omitted.
During the past several years, there have been reports of numerous Israeli attacks inside Syria reported by foreign news sources. The Israelis have assumed responsibility for a few incidents, and even when one of their F-16s was shot down in February 2018, it had little, if any, effect on Israel’s determination to protect its homeland.
The author is a No. 1 New York Times bestselling author with 80 published books. He is the founder of Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem of which the late president Shimon Peres, Israel’s ninth president, was the chairman.