Opinion

'The Atmosphere Was Tense': Inside the First Briefings About Syria’s Secret North Korean Nuclear Reactor

Israel’s then-defense minister: Mossad head Meir Dagan’s approach won out: Israel’s security cannot be delegated to any external actor, not even the U.S. We had to destroy the Syrian reactor – and try to avoid an escalation to war with Assad

A picture of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen on a Syrian man's T-Shirt in Damascus December 11, 2005.
REUTERS

I remember well the urgent request for a meeting. It came from the head of the Mossad, the late Meir Dagan, in early March 2006.

The relationship between the Mossad chief and I was amicable, but the request was unusual: the Mossad is under the authority of the Prime Minister, while the IDF is under the Defense Minister, the post I then held.

Meir Dagan sat before me, in his typically calm manner, while in the room, the atmosphere was tense. Every photo that was added to the table had completed another piece in the puzzle. The overall picture revealed a model of a nuclear reactor produced in North Korea. In the photos several North Korean workers were seen working out in the open, with no military activity in their vicinity.

Then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan and IDF head Gabi Ashkenazy in 2012
\ Alon Ron

A cunning maneuver by the young President Bashar Assad meant the nuclear reactor program was moving rapidly into its final stages and was almost operational, while Western intelligence agencies did not suspect any unusual activity. The impression that the satellite imagery gave was of an innocent agricultural farm. 

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Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and I set up two designated teams: one held weekly meetings at the Prime Minister’s residency.

The second team, headed by me, included Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Air Force commander Major General Eliezer Shkedi, IDF Military Intelligence Directorate Major General Amos Yadlin, the commander of the Planning Directorate Major General Ido Nehushtan, head of the Northern Command Major General Gadi Eizenkot, and my Military Secretary Major General Eitan Dangot. I also included in that closed forum my deputy minister, Ephraim Sneh, to ensure a civilian dimension to the decision-making process.

That process had to incorporate three challenges: intelligence, operational and diplomatic. Furthermore, the time factor added a significant challenge of urgency, due to the risks of the reactor turning "hot," and of a leak to the media.

Since the reactor was located near the Euphrates river, if it would have turned “hot” that would have meant that any attack on the reactor would have become an environmental disaster. The State of Israel might have been blamed for every child born with a deformity in every country across the river for the coming century.

A leak to the media would have stirred an international debate, which would have effectively prevented Israel from taking any military action, and would have required us to take diplomatic measures instead. Endless discussions at the International Agency for Atomic Energy, at the UN General Assembly and in the Security Council would have undermined the operation.

Recalling how that area - Deir Al-Zour - later fell to ISIS should suffice to understand how vital Israel's operation had been.

Mossad head Dagan’s approach was that the responsibility over Israel’s security cannot be delegated to any external actor - not even to the best of our allies - and that position was adopted by the entire forum.

How the Syria strike unfolded

From the operational perspective there was an overriding consensus that immediate action was needed to eliminate the reactor, while opting for the best alternative to minimize the likelihood of an escalation to war.

I asked that several alternatives would be presented to me.

At the diplomatic level, Prime Minister Olmert decided to update the Americans as soon as it was possible. Fortunately, the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had accepted my invitation and arrived at that time to visit Israel.

On 18th April, 2007 we held a reception for him at the Defense Ministry. The following morning, at 7:30am, I arrived in his room at the David Intercontinental Hotel, along with the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate Yadlin and my military secretary Dangot.

In our confidential meeting I exposed the information we had about the Syrian nuclear reactor. In parallel, Dagan was sent to the U.S. on behalf of the Prime Minister to update President George Bush.

In the background to all that security drama, the primaries for the leadership of the Israeli Labor Party took place. During all those months of a political struggle, I made sure that security matters remained my top priorities.

On the 12th June, 2007 Ehud Barak was elected to chair the Labor Party. I maintained the schedule of security-related meetings. On the 14th June, during the last meeting of the operational team in which I participated, Air Force commander Shkedi notified us that he was ready to execute the attack and requested to expedite the decision-making process.

An Israeli air force F-16I fighter plane is seen at a hangar during a tour organized for the foreign press at the Ramon Air Force Base, in the southern Israeli Negev desert.
Marina Passos, AFP

The following day, in the midst of a strategic discussion at the prime minister’s house, Ehud Barak presented his demand to take on immediately the role of Defense Minister. On the 18th June the ministerial appointment was ratified at the Knesset plenary.

With a great sense of responsibility on this sensitive matter I insisted on passing a complete file to my successor Barak, which included all the relevant materials to prepare for the elimination of the Syrian nuclear reactor. Israel’s security always stands above and beyond political considerations.

My term as Defense Minister was replete with challenges, starting with the Summer Rain operation in Gaza (the first since the disengagement from the Gush Katif settlements), the Second Lebanon War and the re-establishment of deterrence in the north, through the build-up of the emergency units, the training programs of the IDF, the establishment of a National Emergency Authority, to my decision to approve the Iron Dome air defense system.

Alongside all of these there was a long line of covert operations that were concluded and executed during my term in office.

This morning the citizens of Israel are exposed to one of the most glorious chapters in the history of the defense ministry. This chapter was enabled, among other things, by the responsible conduct of all those who were part of the confidential planning process, at the operational and political level. Such a conduct can set an example to the way the security cabinet operates at present and in the future.

Today Israelis are learning about the bold policy decisions navigated by Prime Minister Olmert and will be exposed to the bravery of the Chief of Staff and the IDF generals.

However, most important are those who were on the frontline: the air-force pilots, the combatants in the Special Units, the intelligence personnel and the Mossad agents. They and their commanders deserve all possible credit. I am proud of having had the privilege to work along with those heroes.  

I would like to salute, especially, one man whose initiative, creativity and determination were critical, and whom I regret is no longer with us to earn the respect, the glory and the credit he deserves - Meir Dagan. May he rest in peace.

Amir Peretz is a member of the Knesset for the Zionist Union party. He formerly served as Defense Minister (2006-7) and Deputy Prime Minister. Twitter: @amirperetz