Two Prime Ministers' Egos Battle Over the Syrian Nuclear Reactor Strike

Soon-to-be-published memoirs led to the easing of censorship of Israel's strike; Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak tell conflicting versions of the same story

Then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, right, in conversation with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in July 2007, a month after the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor.
Tess Scheflan

Some 10 years after Israeli aircraft bombed and destroyed a nuclear reactor in northeast Syria, Israel finally lifted censorship on the incident Wednesday for reasons that are related more to the egos of two men than anything else.

>> No longer a secret: How Israel destroyed Syria's nuclear reactor ■ Ten years of silence on Syria strike. Why now? ■ The intelligence failure: It took years for Israel to discover the reactor ■ The real fallout from Israel's 2007 attack on the Syrian reactor

The details of the operation have already been reported in detail by the foreign media and, under various restrictions, in the Israeli press as well. However, the official version has remained oblique, following the original decision by the government of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert not to take responsibility in order to minimize the chances of a conflict with Syria.

The covers of the memoirs of Ehud Barak, left, and Ehud Olmert – “My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace” and “In the First Person” (“Beguf Rishon”).

So why change the policy now? The two men who took the decision to attack the reactor in September 2007 – Olmert and his then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak – are both publishing their memoirs this spring and have insisted on putting their contradictory versions of events before the public.

>> Barak rips into Olmert for creating 'apocalyptic atmosphere' ahead of attack <<

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 released this May in English, published in the United States by St. Martin’s Press.

Both men, who served relatively short terms as prime minister and parted ways as bitter rivals, have for years criticized each other over the decision-making process leading up to the operation. Both insisted that their own versions be allowed to appear in their respective books.

The government could have stuck to its policy and prevented them from doing so (the books of former senior officials have to be vetted by the military censorship and a special committee). But it seems that after nearly 11 years, common sense has prevailed and the two premiers’ memoirs have spurred a change of heart.

If early copies of the two books are anything to go by, we’re in for another bloody round of Ehud vs. Ehud battles.

An e-book edition of Olmert’s autobiography – or, more accurately, his settling of accounts with everyone who ever crossed his path – has already been released. In that edition, he doesn’t refer specifically to the operation, but does offer a scathing account of Barak’s conduct as defense minister regarding “an operation, extraordinary in its importance, in its daring and in the risks involved.”

This is clearly the Syrian reactor strike, and we can expect many more details in interviews with Olmert over the next few days and in the print edition of “In the First Person” – which is released this weekend.

Meanwhile, everything he has to say about the operation concerns Barak. Olmert describes “an in-depth debate” with the heads of the Mossad, the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service to discuss the operation. He recounts how Barak, “who was the last of the speakers before me, said: ‘I don’t want to recommend. I will speak only of the risks in the operation.’”

While Olmert says the risks Barak listed were relevant, “There was no recommendation. If you can avoid responsibility – why not?”

Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak in 2009. One of these men is seemingly already imagining how he will describe this meeting in his memoir.
Nir Kafri

That’s one way of seeing it. And in the context of Olmert’s book, it’s the only way – since Barak, who forced Olmert to resign a year later over allegations of bribe-taking, is portrayed throughout as a two-faced schemer, forever trying to return to the Prime Minister’s Office by underhand methods.

What Olmert doesn’t write, but has hinted and insinuated over the years, is that the real reason Barak was in favor of delaying the operation was his belief that Olmert would soon have to resign (due to his disastrous management of the Second Lebanon War and the police investigations against him). According to Olmert, Barak believed that in his absence he would have all the glory of the reactor strike for himself.

The main, obvious, flaw in Olmert’s account is that he describes only one in a series of discussions on the operation in which he and Barak participated.

Assuming the operation could not have ultimately gone ahead without the defense minister expressing his opinion, the description – if it is even close to accurate – is almost certainly one of the earlier ones, shortly after Barak replaced Amir Peretz as defense minister on June 18, 2007. In that context, Barak refraining from offering a recommendation and pointing out the risks seems entirely reasonable.

Olmert will probably offer more details soon, but they are likely to be in the same vein.

At 72, after serving 16.5 months in prison for multiple convictions of bribery, fraud and obstruction of justice, and with no prospect of ever returning to public life, he has been reduced to publishing 600 pages of attacks on his political rivals and tormentors in the legal establishment and media.

Barak’s account in his forthcoming memoir is more detailed, but it’s also clearly written with a view to countering Olmert’s narrative.

He acknowledges that upon becoming defense minister, the Mossad’s discovery of the Syrian reactor was “in my in-box,” and that while “Olmert wanted to attack within days,” he believed there were risks that hadn’t been sufficiently addressed.

He claims to have “shared” Olmert’s sense of urgency, but writes that “we needed a fail-safe plan to destroy the reactor” that would minimize “the possibility of a full-scale military confrontation with Syria, and probably Hezbollah.” And if such a confrontation were to take place, Israel “had to make sure we were ready to respond.”

Barak criticizes the level of planning at the time as being “off-the-shelf” and “untested,” and claims to have directed the formulation of “alternative plans” and worked to stockpile “the munitions and spare parts necessary for Israel to deal with a prolonged conflict if that did become necessary.”

He also claims that, even at this stage, Olmert “had begun to imply” to ministers and senior officers that Barak was against the strike.

According to the then-defense minister, the strike took place only when he deemed the preparations sufficient. He gives Olmert – who as prime minister held ultimate responsibility – not one word of credit for its success.

The flaw in Barak’s narrative is that the time that elapsed between his appointment as defense minister and the strike itself was only two and a half months – yet the fundamental change of plans and stockpiling for war that he describes would have taken longer than this.

While the plans were indeed modified, the change was nowhere near as radical, nor the preparations for an escalation as major, as Barak claims.

Now both pensioners in their seventies, neither of the two Ehuds are likely to ever return to frontline politics. Both are now reduced to sniping from the sidelines and fighting for their share of fading glory. Still, one good thing to come out of their squabbling is that we can finally begin to paint a more accurate picture of what happened on that night in September 2007.