Analysis

Despite Criticism, Israel Wasn't Wrong to Break the Silence Surrounding the Strike on the Syrian Reactor

It’s doubtful the blackout would have withstood a High Court challenge for much longer, especially considering that many of the details on the 2007 attack had already been published abroad

A still frame from a video released by the Israeli military which shows the site of the suspected Syrian nuclear reactor before and after it was bombed by Israel in 2007.
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

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.

But most of the criticism directed at 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.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

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.

>> Ten years of silence on Syria strike. Why now? ■ The real fallout from the strike ■ The intelligence failure: It took years for Israel to discover the reactor ■ Israeli strike on Syrian nuclear reactor: Battle of the memoirs >> Who's hiding Israeli air force participation in major exercise with UAE and U.S.?

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.

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 (which government?), 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.

Screen grabs from a video released by the Israeli military showing the airstrike on the suspected Syrian nuclear reactor site near Deir al-Zor.
HANDOUT/ REUTERS

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. The idea that it would be possible to completely control the amount of information that got out for any length of time was simply wrong from the start.