Netanyahu Offers First Confirmation of Syria Operation

In what appears to be the first confirmation by a senior politician of foreign media reports of an Israeli operation in Syria two weeks ago, opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu told Channel One television last night that he was party to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's decision.

In an interview with Channel One news anchor Haim Yavin, Netanyahu said that he briefed on Olmert's decision to carry out an operation in Syria, gave him his backing and congratulated him.

"When the prime minister take action in important and necessary matters, and generally when the government is doing things for the security of Israel, I give it my endorsement," he said. "I was party to this matter, I must say, from the first minute and I gave it my backing, but it is still too early to discuss this subject."

As Netanyahu was going public with his endorsement of the reported attack against a target in Syria, the deputy chairman of the board of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Gideon Frank, warned delegates at the 51st International Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna yesterday, that Israel would not be able to ignore the efforts by various countries in the Middle East to develop weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.

Even though Frank did not specify the countries in question, his statements hinted heavily at Iran and Syria.

Responding to the near permanent call by Arab states for Israel to agree to a nuclear weapons-free Middle East, Frank reiterated a series of preconditions for achieving what he described as "a noble goal," stressing that this "cannot be advanced out of context." Frank stressed that the manifestation of this "vision," which is interpreted as a call on Israel to relinquish its nuclear capabilities, can only occur in stages.

The proposed disarmament would also include chemical and biological weapons and ballistic missiles.

Frank is heading the Israeli delegation to the meeting. Dr. Shaul Horev, who will replace Frank as director of the IAEC early next month, also attended. The chairman of the IAEC is the prime minister, and Frank was given a new position as deputy chairman of the board.

In his address to yesterday's meeting, Frank said that "lamentably, some instances of gross and consistent noncompliance, mostly in our region, have not been initially detected by the [International Atomic Energy] Agency and have not as yet been checked by proper enforcement of corrective measures."

He warned that "if left unchecked, these developments will undermine regional and global stability, while also posing a grave existential challenge to Israel. We can hardly remain oblivious to intensive efforts by some in our region to develop WMD [weapons of mass destruction] and their means of delivery, accompanied by sustained denial of the very legitimacy of our sovereign existence and calls for our destruction."

Alluding to the disagreement between the Bush administration, which favors intensifying pressure on Iran, and IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, who advocates a more conciliatory line, Frank said that Israel hopes that "the international community will ultimately muster the collective will to take all appropriate measures to satisfactorily address the challenge." He added that "it is essential as well to take part in parallel efforts inspired by the SC [UN Security Council] decisions to condemn such reckless behavior and redouble the effort to diffuse these grave threats to the security and stability of our world."

Frank reiterated "Israel's longstanding commitment to norms of security, responsibility, accountability and restraint in the nuclear domain. These, needless to say, remain unchanged."

The Israeli delegation chair noted that "many alarming proliferation developments in the Middle East have occurred in recent years. None of these involve Israel, but all of them challenge our security. These developments demonstrate the alarming attitude of some regional states to their international commitments in the nuclear domain."

"A NWFZ [nuclear weapons-free zone] can only emerge as an outgrowth of a fundamental transformation of the regional political-strategic environment through a gradual process of building mutual trust and reconciliation, followed by more modest arms control measures," Frank added.

Frank also informed the IAEA conference that "in order to meet the growing energy demands, the lack of indigenous energy sources and the pressing desire for clean energy, the Ministry of National Infrastructure, in collaboration with the IAEC, is conducting nowadays a preliminary feasibility study on nuclear power reactors in Israel, on the premise that nuclear power reactors to be built in Israel will be subjected to international safeguards."

Meanwhile, publications of the Syrian Reform Party, an opposition group representing the oppressed Assyrian minority in Syria, recently reprinted a story originally published in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyasa in December 2006, which quoted European intelligence sources as saying that Syria is conducting "an advanced nuclear program" in Hasakah, a province in northeastern Syria.

The report quoted British sources as having identified Colonel Maher Assad, a relative of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Rami Mahmouf as the two people "supervising" the project.

According to the report in Al-Siyasa, the Syrian nuclear program used Iraqi materials smuggled by Saddam Hussein's sons prior to the American invasion of Iraq in March, 2003.

Some 60 Iraqi scientists, along with Iranian and former Soviet experts, "are contributing to the Syrian nuclear program," according to the British sources quoted in the report.