Israeli Defense Chief Regrets Clearing 2007 Syria Nuclear Reactor Strike for Publication

Israel claimed credit for the 2007 attack, 11 years after it was carried out to stop Syria from developing a nuclear capacity with North Korean help

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman
Tomer Appelbaum

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman expressed regret on Wednesday for approving publication of the details of Israel's attack in 2007 on a Syrian nuclear reactor. Eleven years after the attack took place, Israel for the first time officially confirmed it was behind the strike.

Speaking with reporters, Lieberman said that, in light of "the war over credit" for the attack and "the wave of mutual defamation" in Israel over the aerial attack on the reactor, he was sorry that he had allowed the details to clear Israeli military censorship.

Lieberman spoke of an Israeli media circus, which he said put the decision taken in September 2007 to destroy the reactor in an embarrassing light. This does an injustice to the pilots who carried out the operation and the staff of the Mossad espionage agency and Military Intelligence who obtained the information about the reactor, he said.

"People have breached every barrier and are simply freely releasing information some of which could cause serious harm to Israel's security," Lieberman said. The defense minister, who will be wrapping up a visit to Africa on Thursday, said by phone that on his return to Israel, he intends to reexamine military censorship policy regarding books written by former public officials.

The defense minister expressed appreciation for the work of the military censor's office, including its preparation for the release of the material on the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor. His decision to release the information for publication was based on the professional opinions of top officials in the Israeli army and the Mossad, he added.

Lieberman, who was a member of the security cabinet at the time, also rejected out of hand a claim that had been made by Ehud Barak, the defense minister when the reactor was destroyed, that the atmosphere at the security cabinet meetings during the period were "hysterical and apocalyptic." There was in fact an atmosphere of level-headedness and responsibility, Lieberman said, and the prime minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, was restrained and functioned well. 

The former heads of the Mossad and Military Intelligence at the time of the attack are now warring over which intelligence organization deserves the most credit for uncovering the Syrian nuclear program. Tamir Pardo, who was the head of the Mossad in 2007, said on Wednesday that it was only because of the Mossad that  Israel knew about the reactor. He also said its late discovery was a "thunderous failure."

The Syrian reactor was attacked due to the capability that it would have given the Syrians, with North Korean help, to develop nuclear weapons. According to the New Yorker magazine, Mossad officers broke into the home of the head of the Syrian atomic energy commission in Vienna and copied data from his computer. This information contained pictures of the inside of the reactor that proved its existence.

The former head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, rejected allegations of an intelligence failure, saying Military Intelligence pointed out the possibility of a Syrian nuclear program in late 2006. Yadlin also challenged former Defense Minister Barak's statement that Prime Minister Olmert had created an "apocalyptic atmosphere."

"The atmosphere was professional and on point - from the initial discovery in 2006, to the attack in the fall," Yadlin said. For his part, Barak told Israel Radio on Wednesday morning that the reactor was discovered by chance, with a few months to spare before it would be operational.

Olmert and Barak, who was Israel's prime minister between 1999 and 2001, are both publishing their memoirs and have insisted on putting their contradictory versions of events before the public. Olmert’s book, “In the First Person” (“Beguf Rishon”), is out this week, published in Hebrew by Yedioth Books. Barak’s memoirs, “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace,” is to be released this May in English, published in the United States by St. Martin’s Press.