Reactor in Syria
These satellite images, taken August 5, 2007 (Top) and October 24, 2007 (Bottom), show a suspected nuclear facility in Syria. Photo by Reuters
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Five years have passed since the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Syria, and the Israeli media is still restricted in its reporting on it. The military censor continues to prohibit Israeli journalists from publishing details on the decision-making process that preceded the attack, even though most relevant information has already come out in newspapers and books abroad, including the memoirs of former U.S. leaders.

The absurdity reached new heights in recent weeks. Yossi Melman, a former Haaretz intelligence correspondent, and his American colleague Dan Raviv published their book “Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars.” They included a detailed chapter on the Syrian reactor affair.

Now David Makovsky has come out with an extensive article in The New Yorker. Makovsky, a former Haaretz diplomatic correspondent and executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

These publications relied in part on conversations with Israeli decision-makers who are privy to secrets.

Meanwhile, the censor insists on muzzling Haaretz investigative reports on the bombing of the reactor − one by Amos Harel about two weeks after the operation, and a more extensive piece by Aluf Benn about a year after that. Similar bans have been imposed on other media outlets.

The stifling of the reports was initially explained by concerns that they would embarrass Syrian President Bashar Assad and spur him to respond to the bombing. But what’s the point of suppressing the reports five years later, when Assad is fighting for his survival in a civil war and the relevant details have already been released?

It’s hard to see “near certainty of real harm to state security” − the High Court of Justice’s rule for upholding the censor’s bans − if the details published by Melman and Makovsky appear under other journalists’ bylines. Can anyone believe that Assad will attack Israel only because of an article by Benn or Harel, and not one by Melman or Makovsky?

The requirement that Israeli media rely on “foreign sources” and not describe the decision-making process that preceded one of the most important operations in the Israel Defense Forces’ history insults the intelligence of every Israeli and harms the country’s already weakened democratic image.

The circumstances of the operation in Syria and the decision-making process that preceded it should, even in retrospect, be thoroughly analyzed − certainly at a time when a lively public debate is under way over an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The media’s task is to give the public the information it needs to evaluate the motives and functioning of the decision-makers in the Syrian operation, some who still hold senior positions or are active in public life.

Who is the censor trying to protect with its ban? Three possibilities come to mind.

One is to protect the image of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who opposed the bombing of the Syrian reactor and has been at loggerheads ever since with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The operation’s success reveals Olmert as determined and Barak as soft and hesitant. It may be assumed that the defense minister, a decorated soldier perceived as a hawk on Iran, doesn’t want to see himself described as a dishrag compared to Olmert, who barely served in the IDF.

Barak has another consideration. Olmert, whom he detests, is now fighting to have his sentence reduced and is planning to return to a position of national leadership. Olmert would certainly want the Syrian reactor affair to be chalked up to him and strengthen his image. Barak can ruin his comeback if he keeps the affair out of the press and stops Olmert from boasting about it in interviews. Barak also stops credit from going to his other rival, former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi.

Another possibility is to cover up the serious intelligence deficiencies in the years before the discovery of the reactor, during which the Syrians completely concealed the project from Military Intelligence and the Mossad. The reactor was discovered almost at the last minute it could be bombed without causing massive environmental damage. But the lack of a public debate and the intelligence shortcomings have never been investigated.

It is also possible that banning publication of the affair is a way to hide the lies the public was told in the months before the operation − that Syria was planning to attack Israel − to cover up preparations for the attack.

One wonders whether the chief military censor, Brig. Gen. Sima Vaknin-Gil, believes that by continuing to ban publication she is protecting state security, or whether she is merely carrying out her superiors’ orders in the defense minister’s office and the intelligence branch, who are worried about their images and want to hurt their rivals.