Analyze This: How PM is handling Tibnah fallout

The connection between the Syria strike hearing and a possible Golan deal.

Olmert 298 (photo credit: AP)
Olmert 298
(photo credit: AP)
If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, then the photograph presented to the US Congress on Thursday showing the head of the Syrian nuclear commission standing next to the director of North Korea's Yongbyon reactor ably sums up the following explication of roughly that length. If anyone was wondering how it is that two such significant developments concerning Syria should break at exactly the same time - the latest revelations about the Israeli attack last September on a alleged Syrian nuclear facility being built with North Korean aid and the recent exchange of messages between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Syrian President Bashar Assad in which the former supposedly agreed to return the Golan to Damascus in a peace deal - the sight of these particular Syrian and North Korean officials grinning like idiots into the camera lens offers up a very compelling explanation. Of course, there were other close-up photographs taken of the Syrian reactor at Tibnah presented to Congress that serve as even more damning evidence that the Koreans were helping Damascus build a reactor that was shortly to go on-line - but none as embarrassingly personal as that shot. Just as eye-opening as the content of the photos, if not more so, is the fact that they were reportedly supplied, or even taken, by an Israeli agent at the facility. If authentic - and despite Syrian denials, there is little reason to doubt it given the other evidence presented by the CIA to Congress last week - these photos are part of one of most impressive intelligence coups pulled off by Israel against Syria since the Eli Cohen affair of the 1960s. Coming soon after the Damascus assassination in February of Hizbullah operations chief Imad Mughniyeh, their presentation in public represents tremendous international embarrassment for the Assad regime. Heads will surely roll in Damascus, maybe literally, if they haven't already. No wonder Israeli sources have been saying for weeks the Olmert government preferred that Congress not hold this hearing, fearing that the exposure of this material might so rattle Damascus it could push it into a some kind of retaliatory military venture against Israel. Perhaps it also sheds light on recent developments in the Israeli-Syrian relationship, in particular the exchange of messages between Olmert and Assad via the Turkish government, in which the prime minister supposedly signaled to his Syrian counterpart his willingness for a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Having that bit of information also leak out to the media last week conveniently provides Assad with at least some of the face-saving and media distraction he surely wanted right now to counter the news out of Washington. This is not to say that Jerusalem's Golan offer was either insincere, or only a cynical ploy to reduce tensions with Syria at a time when they might have reached a breaking point. After all, it is reasonable to assume that Olmert would be willing to go at least as far as his coalition partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, did in the then-Labor prime minister's own negotiations with the Syrians over the Golan eight years ago. Maybe even a tiny drop further - meaning Syrian access to Lake Kinneret, given the right overall formula. There are, though, several reasons why Olmert could make such an offer at this time, secure in the knowledge that it is unlikely to lead to an actual agreement that would be politically problematic for him to implement any time soon. One, the conditions placed on that offer - that Syria break its ties to Hamas and Hizbullah, and move out of Iran's orbit - are probably too difficult for Assad to swallow at this juncture. And two, moving forward on the Israel-Syria axis will likely have to wait for the Bush administration, angry at Damascus for reasons related to Iraq, to vacate the White House early next year. Nor can Olmert realistically expect any Golan deal to find sufficient support within his own government, or even in his own Kadima Party. Indeed, perhaps anticipating negative public reaction to the disclosure of his Damascus exchange, the PM conveniently arranged a nice little Pessah vacation on the Golan just when this news broke, in case anyone was worrying he might be in too much of a rush to give it back to the Syrians. It is that kind of nice little PR touch that once again demonstrates what a politician-to-his-very-bones Olmert is. But the presentation made in Washington on Thursday proves something else, too. Whatever other mistakes this prime minister has made, it is clear he was absolutely right in ordering a strike on the Tibnah facility last autumn despite the tremendous risks this entailed. The evidence presented in Washington makes it clear this reactor was in the very latest stages of development and posed a very imminent threat in the form of the enriched plutonium it could have produced to power nuclear weapons. What's more, according to US sources Olmert went ahead and did so despite hesitations in Washington over whether diplomatic pressures should first be brought to bear on Damascus. How anyone in the Bush administration can possibly believe that after the Iraq WMDs fiasco it could credibly make a case against the Syrian nuclear program that would get any international support is almost beyond comprehension. One only has to look at the laughably absurd reaction this weekend by International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei - in which he chose not to criticize Syria for violating the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty it had signed, but instead took aim at Israel for "undermining the due process of verification"(!) - to understand that Jerusalem had no choice but to act fast and on its own. And act Olmert did. Even many who criticized Menachem Begin back in 1981 when he ordered the strike on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor now concede in retrospect that he made the right decision. So it should now be, at least in this country, regarding this much-maligned (and not unjustifiably so) prime minister, who in giving the green light for September's operation made a heroic contribution to the security of this country, and of the region. In recent weeks he has shown himself equally adept at conducting damage control regarding this critical matter. While fallout from Tibnah will undoubtedly continue to drift our way in the coming weeks and months, in the coming years we should all sleep more soundly knowing that somewhere out there in the Syrian hinterlands, Damascus's nuclear dreams lay buried for the time being under the desert sands. [email protected]