Analysis

Olmert Bombed Syria. Netanyahu Didn't Bomb Iran. There's No Comparing the Two

The Iranian nuclear program is a much more complex challenge than the 2007 strike, which was supported by the U.S. and Israel's security chiefs

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a regional development conference in Dimona on March 20, 2018.
\ RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

It took no more than a few hours for the articles on the 2007 destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor to become yet another chapter in the big question hovering over Israel these days: Benjamin Netanyahu – angel or devil? The current prime minister is now stirring such strong emotions, from both his supporters and opponents, that even a discussion on an attack more than a decade ago, when Netanyahu was merely opposition leader, is being conducted based on the implications for his standing.

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The arguments split straight down the middle without a shred of pretense to sober consideration. If it turns out that then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert acted correctly in dealing with the Syrian reactor, it’s obvious that Netanyahu has failed in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. And vice versa: If Netanyahu is a great leader, then the reports about the bombing in Syria are just a carnival that we don’t need.

In the Second Lebanon War, Olmert, as a fresh and arrogant prime minister, showed dangerous adventurism and dragged Israel into a painful military debacle. A year later, in an exemplary manner, he dealt with an unexpected threat and led a complex operational and intelligence effort that achieved his goals: destruction of the reactor while avoiding a war.

>> No longer a secret: How Israel destroyed Syria's nuclear reactor >>

Another year went by and he had to resign amid corruption investigations that eventually put him in prison. Any examination of his image as a leader must take into account all these elements; no single aspect blots out the impression left by his other deeds.

However, the comparison to Netanyahu’s abundant rhetoric and scarce action regarding Iran doesn’t hold water. The Iranian nuclear program is a far more complicated challenge. It’s spread over many sites, twice the distance from Israel as the reactor the North Koreans built for Bashar Assad’s regime at Deir el-Zour.

Olmert, in his decision to attack inside Syria, had two more advantages his successor Netanyahu doesn’t have when it comes to considering an attack inside Iran. George W. Bush in effect gave Olmert a green light to go ahead with the bombing, and Israel’s intelligence chiefs supported his decision, even if there were reservations.

But Netanyahu faced a broad opposition front that included Barack Obama, two chiefs of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, two Mossad heads and two chiefs of the Shin Bet security service. One of the latter, Yuval Diskin, attacked Netanyahu this week for his “cowardice.” But Diskin can’t have it both ways. You can’t blame the prime minister for beating the drums for a dangerous war with Iran and in the same breath complain about him vacillating.

Netanyahu is a pessimist when it comes to the intentions of Israel’s foes and neighbors, and a conservative when it comes to taking action – and for the most part there’s a big gap between the latter and his pathos-filled speeches. In the dangerous neighborhood where Israel takes action, it’s very easy to lead it into unnecessary wars.

Misunderstanding the facts

Ever since the gag order on Israel’s account of the destruction of Syria’s nuclear reactor was lifted Wednesday morning, a debate has raged over the military censor’s judgment. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman even said he regretted not having overturned the censor’s decision to permit publication.

It seems a considerable part of the criticism of the chief military censor, Brig. Gen. Ariella Ben-Avraham, stems from a misunderstanding of the basic facts. And some of the rest seems to be politically driven.

The issue of “deniability room” has already been described at length. Before the September 2007 attack, Military Intelligence concluded that if Israel refrained from talking about it – and thereby didn’t pour salt on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s wounds – this ambiguity would let him save face and forgo a military response that could lead to war. This prediction proved entirely correct, but it required a severe media blackout in Israel for months after the attack.

Yet a policy that was defensible in 2007 (despite journalists’ fury) had become dubious by 2012 (when The New Yorker published an extensive report on the attack, much of which was sourced to senior Israeli officials). And it was patently unreasonable by 2017.

Ben-Avraham had to contend with two simultaneous threats: a petition to the High Court of Justice by journalist Raviv Drucker, who sought authorization for a film to be broadcast on Channel 10 television, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s autobiography. The court rejected Drucker’s petition but asked the censor to reconsider if the situation changed (thereby ensuring ongoing judicial scrutiny of her decisions).

Yet contrary to what was claimed Wednesday, Ben-Avraham didn’t lift the gag order now to promote sales of Olmert’s book. In fact, she delayed its publication for months.

Meanwhile, the foreign media was increasingly reporting on Israeli airstrikes in Syria that targeted Hezbollah arms convoys. In a few cases, Israel even admitted carrying out these strikes. That led MI chief Herzl Halevi to soften his opposition to publishing the story of the reactor.

Yet the censor delayed her final decision for another several months. Her first statement to the media about the possible removal of the gag order came last October. Only five months later was the order actually lifted.

Some of the criticism of the reports is astonishing, a strange admixture of arguments, some of them contradictory. There have been claims that the media has gone over the top covering the attack, that there’s really nothing new, that the reports are damaging Israel’s security and that it’s even a conspiracy of the censor, Olmert’s publisher Yedioth Books and the media companies (many of which are rivals of the Yedioth Ahronoth Group).

It’s hard to ignore the political motivations behind much of the criticism. It apparently stems from fear that any information that gives credit to Olmert, a corrupt prime minister whose political future is behind him, somehow implies something about the performance of the current occupant of the Prime Minister’s Office.

The tight-lipped responses by Benjamin Netanyahu’s supporters were reinforced by the terse statement the prime minister issued Wednesday afternoon; he offered laconic praise to the government (not Olmert’s government, heaven forefend), the army and the Mossad for their success a decade earlier. The arctic chill emanating from these words attests to how the media pieces on the reactor’s destruction were received in Netanyahu’s office.

The state and the censor, as the professional body authorized to make such decisions on the state’s behalf, adhered for years to a ban that became very hard to defend, and it’s doubtful it would have withstood a High Court challenge for much longer. And even once permission was granted in principle, the censor adopted a stringent – and in the view of many journalists completely excessive – stance with regard to scrutinizing details of the articles submitted to Ben-Avraham.

Thus if, as Lieberman claims, there was any harm to national security, it most likely wasn’t caused by the media reports, which were all subjected to close and long scrutiny before publication. Rather, if such damage occurred, it came from the exhaustive round of live interviews with the heroes of the story that opened radio and television broadcasts Wednesday. During those interviews, many of the interviewees divulged a great many details that the censor had nixed in the articles prepared in advance.

In the midst of all this, former top people in the intelligence organizations traded accusations, echoing tensions from the time of the operation itself. For some reason, the Mossad put itself in the position of accuser (“There was an intelligence failure”) and Military Intelligence got defensive (“The reactor was discovered thanks to the excellent intelligence”), as if the blame for not discovering the threat developing in Syria for years weren’t shared by the two organizations.

And to some extent the battle over who should take credit for the operation’s success brings to mind Assaf Inbari’s new book “The Tank,” in which five veterans of the War of Independence argue over which of them fired the shell that stopped the Syrian tank at the entrance to Kibbutz Degania.

After a day of marathon broadcasts, on Wednesday evening came Channel 10’s broadcast of Drucker’s masterful investigative report on the reactor affair. From the program it’s clear that Drucker accepted Olmert’s position in the disagreement with the defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak. In a probing interview with Drucker, when Barak dodges around uncomfortably toward the conclusion, it looks like the end, another end, to his long political career.

And yet Drucker has already titled his book on Barak’s days as prime minister “Hara-kiri” – and Barak, of course, ultimately rehabilitated himself and came back to serve as defense minister.

Who knew and who didn't

One reason for the relatively tardy discovery of the Syrian reactor, about six months before it was attacked and not very long before it was to become operational, has to do with the extreme compartmentalization observed by Assad and his confidants concerning the project. Olmert says that in Israel about 2,500 people in the military and government were involved in the project and signed confidentiality agreements pledging not to leak anything.

In Syria, however, only a very few people who worked directly with the president knew about the project. Israel’s Military Intelligence chief at the time of the attack, Amos Yadlin, told Kan public radio Wednesday that Assad totally compartmentalized his people.

It now turns out that the Israelis successfully combined the efforts of the intelligence organizations, which operated in different disciplines, including technical intelligence-gathering and analysis work.

The search for clues on a possible Syrian nuclear program began with parallel work by research people at Military Intelligence and the Mossad after the surprise of December 2003: the discovery of the Libyan nuclear program. The breakthrough was achieved by a Military Intelligence researcher who provided an analysis three years later.

“The Cube,” the Syrian reactor building, was identified thanks to precision scanning of satellite photographs by Military Intelligence. And the smoking gun, photos of the inside of the reactor, was obtained (according to The New Yorker) by Mossad people who broke into the Vienna apartment where Syrian official Ibrahim Othman was staying and pulled the pictures from his computer. The Israeli government has never claimed responsibility for this.

Particularly during the past decade, Israel has increased its investment of money and personnel in areas of technological intelligence (signals intelligence), visual intelligence and cyber-intelligence, which is developing into a monster of its own in all branches of the intelligence services. These areas are gradually taking budgetary precedence over the more traditional area of human intelligence, in which agents are deployed in the field.

Over many years, Israeli intelligence officials have discussed the priorities for investment in the various areas, in part in the context of the efforts by Israel’s enemies – from Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas – to conceal their activities from Israel.

One of the most dramatic (and painful) incidents in Israeli intelligence history concerned the deployment of the Egyptian spy Ashraf Marwan – President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s son-in-law and President Anwar Sadat’s bureau chief. Marwan famously passed on a warning on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. The disagreement over the way the warning was handled and the question of whether the spy deployed by the Mossad was a double agent engages intelligence veterans to this day.

Still, the ability to use human intelligence (and in rare circumstances, even in the inner circle of an enemy leader) remains critical. Some tidbits and assessments no technology can obtain; it seems the intelligence mix will always depend on a puzzle made up of varied capabilities.