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On Monday, August 27, 2007, some of those who were in on the secret of the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Syria, opened Haaretz to the op-ed pages and nearly spilled their coffee on themselves. There were nine days left until the air force sortie and until then supreme efforts had been made to conceal the operation. Insofar as is known, only a few journalists had caught a whiff of it, among them Amos Harel of Haaretz and Ronnie Daniel of Channel 2. But on that day, it seemed, the secret had escaped and appeared in an opinion piece by Haaretz columnist Akiva Eldar ("Failed Marks in Comprehension," Sept. 11). His column referred to an interview with Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann that had appeared in the paper a month earlier (August 17). Friedmann had taunted his interviewers, Orit Shohat and Ze'ev Segal, in his reply to a question about intervention by the High Court of Justice in the route of the separation fence, when human rights are violated. "Human rights were also violated in the bombing of the reactor in Iraq," Friedmann commented. "That doesn't mean that the High Court of Justice needs to intervene in the government's considerations as to whether or not to bomb the Iraqi reactor."

Homing in on this reply, Eldar scoffed at Friedmann for comparing the separation fence to the bombing of the reactor, and finished his piece with the telling line: "The High Court of Justice is a precious asset for a country that asks the world to evince understanding for its policy of occupation and its decision to destroy the nuclear reactor of a neighboring country."

A senior official became alarmed. A colleague whom he called counseled him not to act hastily - maybe at the newspaper they were recalling an old story about the goings-on on the Iraqi side of the Euphrates River quite by chance, without knowing that there was a new story evolving on the Syrian bank of that same river. And indeed, even when, four days later, less than a week before the operation, an article by John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, appeared in The Wall Street Journal, suggesting in print for the first time the possibility that North Korea had disseminated nuclear know-how and materials to Syria, the Israeli press continued to remain silent. It was only on September 9, three days after the operation, that Bolton's remarks were published on the front page of Haaretz as well as in a thinly veiled hint in the op-ed column concerning the nature of the secret, with the rare and evanescent approval of the censor - who hastened to regret that decision.

Alert and sophisticated observers will find it hard to believe in mere chance. One is Samuel Lewis, who was the U.S. ambassador to Israel at the time of the bombing of the reactor in Iraq in June 1981. In the oral history he gave to the American Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Lewis enumerated the reports that appeared in the Israeli press during the year that preceded the bombing as part of a list of the signals that prime minister Menachem Begin's government sent to Washington: Act through diplomacy to thwart the Iraqi nuclearization, because if you do not, Israel will act through force. According to this school of thought, things don't leak - they get leaked; and there are no industrious journalists, rather only very industrious politicians, officials and military officers.

Urgent message to Reagan

If the Iraqi reactor is the past and the Syrian reactor is the present, from the differences and similarities between them it is possible to infer something about the behavior pattern of the Israelis and Americans in the two crises, regarding the bumps on the road to the next crisis: the Iranian atom. According to the senior officials of George W. Bush's administration who briefed journalists this past week, there was close coordination in the Syrian affair, but each of the countries still has its own individual considerations and different priorities. The heads of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Council took care to say that Israel did not request and thus did not receive a "green light" for the operation. This is disingenuous: If there is no red light, driving is permitted.

A senior official, apparently National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, has said that while Israel attributed immediate danger to the Syrian reactor and wanted to take military action against it, the Americans preferred a mixture of diplomacy and threats of the use of military force, with the aim of dismantling or permanently silencing the reactor so that it would never become operational. This, in effect, is the American line with regard to Iran as well, thus far without success; and in the absence of concrete readiness to move from declarations to deeds, there is no point in threatening the use of force, because the party threatened will not believe that the threat will be carried out.

Were this President Bush's seventh year in the White House, it would have been possible to bet on an attack next year. But Bush will hand over the keys to a new tenant on January 20, 2009. After the departure of Admiral William Fallon - who sabotaged deterrence efforts with regard to Iran with his open opposition to risking a confrontation with that country - his designated successor as commander of CentCom, General David Petraeus, is slated to move from Baghdad into his new position only at the end of the summer or in the fall. The hawkish Petraeus will be Bush's representative to the new administration. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has received approval for his appointment from key senators in the defense field, among them Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan and Republican John McCain of Arizona.

If McCain is elected president, there will indeed be continuity: McCain is Petraeus' most enthusiastic cheerleader in American politics. But a problem is liable to arise if the Democrats win the election. This is the lesson of the Iraqi reactor.

In his memoirs, ambassador Lewis related that on the eve of the Shavuot holiday, June 7, 1981, he and his wife Sally attended a party in the Tel Aviv suburb of Kfar Shmaryahu. From there they went on to the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv for a dinner in honor of Willard C. Butcher, then president of Chase Manhattan Bank, who was in Israel at the time. The host was finance minister Yoram Aridor. Butcher had asked Lewis to brief him at his hotel suite, prior to the dinner, about Israeli economics and politics. With Butcher, Lewis found then congressman Jack Kemp, who had already received an economic briefing from Lewis, but had come to hear a repeat performance.

In the midst of the conversation, the phone rang in the hotel room. The duty officer at the embassy had known where to find Lewis. When the ambassador took the phone, he was surprised to hear prime minister Menachem Begin's voice on the phone. "Sam, I would like you to convey urgently a message from me to President Reagan. About one hour ago, our air force destroyed the nuclear reactor near Baghdad; all the planes have returned safely. Please transmit that news as quickly as possible." Lewis sat down on the edge of the bed. He was uncharacteristically silent for a moment, but when he recovered he said, "All right, Mr. Prime Minister. I'll get in touch with Washington right away. Is there anything else you would like to tell me about the incident?"

Begin limited himself to promising to brief the military attaches at the U.S. Embassy. Lewis summoned his bureau chief to the hotel for a meeting outside the suite and then went back to Butcher and Kemp. Later there was a knock on the door: The military attache and his assistant had arrived. Lewis went out to them in the corridor and heard from them that they had been called in for a briefing at the Defense Ministry. There in the corridor Lewis dictated to his bureau chief a telegram to the White House, to be handled with the highest degree of urgency. The bureau chief rushed back to the embassy to send the telegram and Lewis went back into Butcher's suite, apologized, continued with the conversation, and then went on to the dinner.

In Washington, shock waves from the report began to ripple among the top people in president Ronald Reagan's administration.

'Unexplained events'

Begin's news had astounded Lewis; astounded more than surprised, because during the course of 1980 he had been called in for many conversations with Begin and with the heads of the intelligence community, who shared with him their concern about the Osirak reactor. The differences of opinion between the experts of the two countries on the question of how close the Iraqi reactor was to becoming operational are reminiscent of the disputes concerning the Syrian nuclear program and the Iranian nuclear program. The American assessment always sees the problem as less urgent, by about two years, than the Israeli assessment.

"We tried through diplomatic channels to encourage the French and Italians to stop their companies from assisting the Iraqi effort," relates Lewis in his memoirs. "They were supplying the low enriched uranium which would fuel the reactor initially. We were not having much success. Throughout early 1981, there were some unexplained events - a laboratory in France would blow up or a reactor core would be mysteriously damaged before shipment, or a couple of scientists were kidnapped and disappeared. The assumption was that Israel was not just relying on our diplomatic effort to slow down the project, but were using their own clandestine means to try to stop it. But it kept going forward, and as the winter progressed, I began to hear and relayed to Washington a rising Israeli refrain: 'Either the U.S. does something to stop this reactor or we will have to!'" The Israelis, Lewis adds, made use of many channels, including leaks to the press, in order to transmit this message.

The administration of president Jimmy Carter, which did not agree with the Begin government, but knew its positions very well and spoke with it frequently about the Iraqi reactor, left the stage. On January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

Lewis recalls that at "about the turn of the year, the subject seemed to have disappeared from any conversations. The Israelis stopped complaining; they stopped calling me in; they stopped press leaks." The silence should have sounded an alarm like a siren but the perspicacious ambassador, in his own words, "went to sleep" on the job and in Washington the file on the reactor went missing, literally.

"All the messages on the reactor were of course 'top secret' with very limited distribution," notes Lewis. "After Carter's defeat, as is customary, the government agencies prepare elaborate briefing papers for the transition teams to bring the new administration up to date on the outstanding issues. In the foreign affairs field, the key issues that will confront the administration in the first three months of its tenure are supposed to be identified. I had sent a whole stream of messages about our conversations with the Israelis, Begin's warnings and our sharing of intelligence information. I was concerned that this issue might be overlooked in the transition. So I contacted Washington informally to make sure that a full paper on this subject was being prepared for the transition team. The paper was prepared, but under very restrictive terms - very few copies, very limited distribution."

Lewis assumed that the briefing paper would be passed along to the new secretary of state, Alexander Haig, and to Reagan's staff at the White House. For some reason, this did not happen. Reagan and his national security advisor, Richard Allen, were thunderstruck when the telegram that Lewis dispatched from the hotel corridor arrived. Haig, too, was surprised, though unlike the other top administration people, he welcomed the news, and did not get angry. Lewis, who began to suspect that the new administration was not familiar with the history of the affair, sent the White House a long telegram with a summary of the previous chapters - one of the few telegrams that Reagan bothered to read.

"Then," as Lewis notes, "there was a lot of scurrying trying to find out what happened to the paper written for the transition team and there were some scapegoats fingered. It was not a good time for certain people."

The discussion with the top people in the Bush administration concerning the Syrian affair is no guarantee of its continuation from the same point under its successor in the matter of Iran. Into the crack that gapes between two administrations, especially if they are not both from the same party, are liable to fall a large nuclear reactor and also batteries of surface-to- surface missile launchers.