The nighttime air strike near the Euphrates River on September 6, 2007 was a turning point in Israel’s military, diplomatic and political history. It reshaped the country's defense policies and its relations with the United States and other countries in the region. It also caused a rift among Israel’s leaders, driving a wedge between then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which led to the fall of the government and accelerated the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu.
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In making the decision to destroy the Syrian nuclear reactor, Olmert was following the legacy of Menachem Begin, who had ordered the destruction of the Iraqi reactor in 1981, in order to retain the regional monopoly of the nuclear reactor in Dimona. But Olmert introduced two important changes to the “Begin doctrine”: First, he asked for U.S. backing and shared his concerns with President George Bush, rather than operating behind the back of the Americans; in addition, unlike his predecessor who proudly told the world about the operation, Olmert adhered to a policy of ambiguity. Israel refrained from making any announcements or from taking any credit concerning the operation, and made do with quiet diplomatic talks. The story was leaked by senior American figures and U.S. media outlets, with no Israeli admission of responsibility.
The American backing can be viewed in two ways: First, it reflected an unprecedented strengthening of the strategic alliance between the two countries; secondly, it constituted a voluntary concession with respect to Israel’s freedom of military action. However, the circumstances facing Olmert were totally different than the ones Begin confronted. In 1981 Iraq did not possess the means to retaliate for the bombing of the Osirak reactor, southwest of Baghdad, and it "repaid" Israel only a decade later by firing Scud rockets at Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War. However, in 2007, Syrian President Bashar Assad had at his disposal hundreds of surface-to-surface missiles, aimed at many targets in Israel. Moreover, during the strike on Osirak, there were no American forces in the vicinity, whereas a decade ago there were significant numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq, not far from the Syrian reactor. Israel did not wish to put American soldiers at risk, and because of the manner in which they were deployed in the area there was no way of flying to and from the target without being detected – as was the case in Begin’s time.
Israel's decision to maintain ambiguity was designed to soften the blow to Assad’s prestige and to minimize his temptation to launch an all-out war in reaction to the destruction of his clandestine project. Judging by the outcome, war was indeed prevented and Israel emerged from the operation with no casualties or damage to its assets.
The international community, aside from Iran and North Korea, kept silent and did not condemn the Israeli air strike as it had in 1981, with Iraq. One may assume that regional leaders were happy that Assad would not take control over their countries, due to his possession of the first Arab bomb. One can only imagine with horror what would have happened if the reactor had become operative, with the subsequent dissolution of Syria leading to its takeover by ISIS or another Islamist organization.
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Nevertheless, the policy of ambiguity, born as a solution to a problem posed by a specific military operation, had far-reaching consequences. Since 2007 Israel has consistently refrained from making announcements regarding air strikes carried out beyond its borders. Citizens of Israel learn about these incidents from “foreign sources,” often accompanied by video footage or satellite photos. The cabinet and the Israel Defense Forces say nothing beyond making general statements lacking any details. During Olmert’s tenure this was the way of reporting attacks in Sudan, directed against arms shipments earmarked for Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
During the last seven years, since the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, “foreign sources” have reported dozens of Israel Air Force operations in civil war-torn Syria – attacks designed to interfere with the armament of Hezbollah or with an increased Iranian presence along the border with Israel. Israel only took responsibility for a few operations in which its fighter jets were attacked by Syrian air defenses. Even the downing of an Israeli F-16 last month left no impact on the public debate about the secret bombings in Syria.
For anyone who grew up with stories of Israel’s retaliatory raids against Arab fedayeen infiltration in the 1950s and aerial strikes deep inside Egypt during the War of Attrition, the official silence with regard to operations carried out beyond our borders represents a different kind of Israel. This is an Israel that's willing to forgo self-congratulatory displays and commendations of pilots and commanders, in order to benefit from relative freedom of action and from the absence of international condemnation regarding, for example, the “violation of Syrian sovereignty.”
This silence, however, exacts a price in terms of undermining democracy within the country. The obscurity imposed by the censors precludes a public debate on the subject of striking beyond our borders and the risks such attacks entail – in contrast to other possible modes of operation, whether diplomatic or military, which could help maintain the balance of power on our northern borders. So far the government and defense establishment are not facing any consequences: As long as the enemy does not strike back and there are no casualties or damage in Israel, the public doesn’t care about the array of targets chosen by the IAF.
The political implications of the strike against Syria a decade ago were no less significant. Barak assumed office at the height of the diplomatic and military preparations for the attack. Almost from the outset he opposed Olmert, demanding a delay and better preparation. Each of them saw political motives in the other’s position, on the backdrop of the Winograd Commission that was investigating the failures of the 2006 Lebanon War.
According to Barak, Olmert sought to soften the recommendations in the panel's final report, after publication of its harsh interim report that presented the prime minister as an irresponsible amateur. In Olmert's view, Barak was hoping that the report would remove Olmert from office so that the laurels associated with the Syrian operation would be bestowed upon him, the defense minister. Olmert portrayed Barak as too hesitant, while Barak portrayed the premier as someone who was over-zealous.
The first round in this fight was won by Olmert: He twisted Barak’s arm and made him vote in favor of carrying out the Syrian operation at a timing chosen by the prime minister and by senior army brass. However, politics is a wheel of fortune. Olmert survived the final report of the Winograd Commission but got mired in police investigations in the summer of 2008. Barak seized the opportunity and called for his resignation, threatening to dissolve the coalition. Olmert had no choice and relinquished his post. Barak leaned hard on Tzipi Livni, who was then trying to form an alternative cabinet. Following the elections which were called ahead of schedule, he stayed on as part of the Netanyahu government. To this day it’s not clear if Barak made a deal in advance with Netanyahu, whom he preferred as a political partner over Olmert or Livni.
Ambiguity with regard to the attack on the Syrian reactor worked as a boomerang with regard to Olmert’s political career. Instead of being recognized as a hero who had removed a great strategic threat hanging over Israel, he was vilified as the first prime minister ever to be convicted and sent to prison. Belatedly, however, Olmert is getting the credit he deserves, and the episode of the 2007 air strike features prominently in his memoirs. However, after his conviction on bribery and other charges and his subsequent imprisonment, he cannot return to political life or to a national leadership role. For his part, Barak will now be presented as hesitant and a worrier at moments of fateful decisions, fracturing his image as a bold fighter in an elite unit – an image on which he has built his career.
Only Netanyahu profited thrice from the Syrian strike and the ambiguity imposed around it: He returned to power, he neutralized Olmert as a potential rival, and he now can assail Barak, his clever and aggressive rival on Twitter.