Middle Israel: Big bomb, small men

The bottom line of the Syrian reactor brouhaha is that ours remains a relatively healthy public sphere where flawed leaders are ultimately removed

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert (L) shakes hands with his defense minister, Ehud Barak (photo credit: REUTERS)
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert (L) shakes hands with his defense minister, Ehud Barak
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Having emerged from the Garden of Eden, the Euphrates had seen and heard a lot over the ages, from builders plotting to scrape Babel’s heavens to a bodiless hand writing on King Belshazzar’s palatial wall.
That is why the river that was painted red by Assyrian swordsmen, Greek archers, Byzantine lancers and Mongol cavaliers was probably unimpressed when a squadron of fighter jets emerged from its southern bank, leveled a boxy structure on its opposite bank, and vanished into the darkness.
We, however, were impressed, even before this week’s informational striptease following the censor’s permission to admit the Syrian nuclear reactor’s bombing a decade ago last fall.
 Before and after aerial picture of the Syrian nuclear reactor site. (IDF Spokesperson's Office) Before and after aerial picture of the Syrian nuclear reactor site. (IDF Spokesperson's Office)
We were impressed with the displays of political daring, effective espionage, military precision and diplomatic silence, as Israel’s leaders displayed an unknown ability to keep their mouths shut.
Until last Wednesday.
Finally licensed to talk, the operation’s protagonists babbled ad nauseam, exposing spy-vs-spy acrimony and a pair of retired prime ministers whose bickering rhetoric and vindictive personalities remain their worst enemies, even as septuagenarian has-beens.
“There was a resounding failure here,” accused former Mossad head Tamir Pardo, referring to the IDF’s failure to detect the Syrian scheme five years before one intelligence officer deciphered one suspicious aerial photo, and several Mossad agents sucked up one Syrian laptop’s data in a Viennese hotel.
“A Mossad squad managed to bring this intelligence, using the Mossad’s methods,” gloated Pardo, before shedding crocodile tears in saying “the problem with successful operations is that Jewish or Israeli intellect tries to own them, and an exceptionally ugly ego war ensues.” Middle Israelis actually thought it was the spymaster who was trying to own the operation’s glory, and fan a war of Israeli egos.
Still, these interagency dynamics dwarf when compared with the courtesies exchanged by Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak.
BARAK BECAME defense minister after his predecessor and rival, Amir Peretz, had set in motion the operation’s preparations.
Barak set out to delay the operation, even after having been warned that the reactor might in the meantime be activated, in which case an attack might cause a humanitarian catastrophe à la Chernobyl.
No, one cannot scoff at the decorated general’s claim that he had to make sure the IDF was ready should the attack spark war with Syria. The problem is that the caution Barak claims to have exercised was nowhere to be seen during the rest of his political career.
The Barak of 2007 was the same one who as prime minister set deadlines for peace deals with Syria and the Palestinians without even discussing them with his interlocutors; the same Barak who made territorial offers at Camp David even after losing his Knesset majority; the same Barak who in 2013 ignored the IDF Censor’s order and bragged about an IAF attack on an arms convoy outside Damascus; the same Barak who eight months into Syria’s seven-year-old civil war declared that “the Assad family has finished its historic role” and “will likely vanish within several weeks.”
Barak will therefore have to excuse us for suspecting that what drove his effort to delay the reactor’s bombing was not the state of military preparations, but his concern that if carried out so soon after his appointment, its glory would go to others.
Conversely, if delayed a bit more, Olmert might be removed by the Winograd Committee which was probing at the time the previous year’s Second Lebanon War. In such a case, Barak might somehow succeed Olmert and then own the operation in Syria.
No, there is no evidence that these were Barak’s considerations, but he will have to forgive us for suspecting they still guided him, for two reasons:
First, when the far riskier idea of an attack in Iran was later discussed in the Netanyahu cabinet, Barak was suddenly the hawk whose battle-thirst had to be offset by the cooler heads of the IDF and the Mossad.
Second, in interviews this week, Barak disparaged the elected prime minister who was his boss, Olmert, as “a certified improviser” who had “never approved a real operation’s planning,” unlike Barak, the “pro” – as he put it – who had “for decades” planned and approved operations.
Barak’s thinking, that in launching operations civilian politicians should make way for generals, is but part of a broader egomania whereby this lifelong commando defied not only civilians’ authority but also generals’, when he insisted as defense minister to approve every colonel’s appointment.
The 76-year-old Barak “has finished his historic role” – to paraphrase his statement about Assad – but he will always loom as one of the most reckless leaders Israel has ever seen.
Sadly, Olmert does not emerge much prettier from recent days’ events.
THE PROBLEM with Olmert is not in his handling of the Syrian nuclear challenge, a task in which he displayed courage, wisdom and poise that added up to his finest hour.
Rather, as reflected in his new book and one TV interview, the problem is that Olmert hopes to use this part of his record to offset its legal and moral parts. To confess “I sinned,” as King David did after hearing his own moral rebuke, has yet to cross Olmert’s mind.
Fortunately, the bottom line of this week’s cacophony is that it serves as a reminder that ours remains a relatively healthy public sphere, where flawed leaders are ultimately removed.
To appreciate this, just consider this saga’s forgotten hero, Bashar Assad.
The nuclear program at the heart of this week’s brouhaha is what this man was busy with while his angry, underemployed, underfed and woefully conflicted citizenry was fast approaching the civil war that would kill thousands, level cities and displace millions.
Even so, Assad will face no commission of inquiry, no journalistic investigation, and no court of law, and – so unlike Olmert and Barak – will never in his life fear electoral defeat.
Olmert and Barak have each “finished their historic role,” as Barak said of Assad back when most of his war’s half-million fatalities were still alive. Assad’s role, by contrast, may have hardly begun.