Opinion

Three Israeli Nuclear Failures and a Fourth on the Way

After the events of Libya, Iraq and Syria, the Israeli intelligence services cannot afford to make the same mistakes when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program

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

In December 2003, Libya’s then-leader Col. Muammar Gadhafi announced a decision to abandon his country’s nuclear program. The news was a bolt from the blue to Israel’s intelligence agencies: Israel had no idea Libya had been actively engaged in developing its military nuclear capability at many sites, reaching quite an advanced stage. The U.S. and British intelligence services hadn’t shared their information on the program with their Israeli counterparts, even concealing the steps they were taking to dismantle the Libyan nuclear industry.

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If a hostile Arab country like Libya – headed by an unpredictable tyrant like Gadhafi – can develop nuclear capability without our intelligence services noticing or suspecting anything, it is a serious intelligence failure. In my eyes, this was the greatest failure since the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and it required all the intelligence agencies to conduct a serious examination of how it happened.

The Libyan failure is the first Israeli failure involving unconventional weapons in an Arab country.

The second failure concerned Military Intelligence assessments regarding the second Gulf War. On April 8, 2003, the Military Intelligence chief appeared before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and said: “I believe there’s a very high probability that Iraq has unconventional weapons.” Military Intelligence also said the Iraqis had between 50 and 100 missiles.

Even toward the end of the main fighting, after the Iraqi army had been totally defeated by the armies of the United States and its allies, Military Intelligence refrained from recommending that the government call off the national state of preparedness and liberate Israel’s citizens from their ever-present gas masks. There was still a fear that Israel would be attacked from northwestern Iraq, which had yet to be captured by Western forces.

This decision illustrated Military Intelligence’s deep belief that the Iraqi regime had weapons of mass destruction and surface-to-surface missiles.

During the period prior to the second Gulf War, in my role as chairman (until February 2003) of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and thereafter as a member of said committee, I publicly contradicted that conclusion. I based my assumption on the fact that despite the tremendous efforts invested by the world’s finest intelligence organizations – including Israeli intelligence – absolutely no evidence of the existence of long-range surface-to-surface missiles and their launchers had been seen or identified. Nor was there any proof of the existence of WMDs.

As a result, I believed Iraq did not have the capability to attack the State of Israel: Either it had no missiles, launchers or WMDs, or if it did possess such means, they were dismantled and hidden, and, in effect, out of operation.

I argued that the trauma of the Yom Kippur War was deeply etched into the minds and thinking of Israeli intelligence. Haunted by the failure to give advance warning in 1973, the intelligence bodies subsequently tended to interpret findings severely and adopted the policy of covering their asses.

The intelligence recommendation to order that gas mask kits be opened (at a cost of over 100 million shekels, or $28.5 million) was the result of excessive caution and an attempt to avoid a risk whose probability was negligible. The recommendation to inoculate Israeli citizens against smallpox – even though the vast majority of Western troops participating in the Iraqi war were not inoculated against it – was another illustration of how the intelligence community made a mountain out of a molehill.

At the end of the fighting, my replacement heading the foreign affairs committee, MK Yuval Steinitz, decided to establish a committee to examine the intelligence services in the 2003 war. In the report, which was submitted in March 2004, the committee discussed the failures of Military Intelligence assessments.

In light of the intelligence failures concerning unconventional weapons, both in Libya and Iraq, the committee decided there would be a discussion conducted every six months with the heads of the Mossad and Military Intelligence. This would examine the possibility that there were nuclear weapons in the hands of Arab countries in general, and Syria in particular.

In the session held at the end of 2004, the committee members, headed by Steinitz (a former philosophy professor), raised the possibility that Syria had nuclear weapons. The reply of the head of Military Intelligence was: “As head of Military Intelligence and as a professional, I can state that your assessment is impossible.” The chairman replied: “Sir, as a philosopher I learned when to cast doubt – and I cast doubt on your intelligence assessment.”

This reflects the third failure of Military Intelligence and the Mossad regarding the existence of nuclear weapons in Arab countries. Today, we know that Syria began building its nuclear reactor in the early 2000s.

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There is no disputing the fact that, until mid-2006, neither Military Intelligence nor the Mossad had any idea that such a reactor was being built by the Syrians, with the help of North Korea, near Deir al-Zour. And there’s no disputing the fact that this was a failure that could have had deadly consequences for Israel. Luckily, in mid-2006, Military Intelligence raised the possibility that there was a Syrian nuclear reactor; in March 2007, the Mossad provided substantial proof of such a reactor; and in September 2007, the Israeli government, headed by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, decided to destroy it and the Israel Air Force successfully carried out the mission.

In the three events I have mentioned, Israeli intelligence failed and did not provide reliable information about unconventional weapons programs in Arab states.

I am not here to hold them to account for the past, but to warn about the future. I am referring, of course, to the Iranian nuclear program. In 2008, at the end of a discussion by ministers in Olmert’s government dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue, I turned to the head of the Mossad at the time – the late Meir Dagan – and asked him: “Meir, look at the map of Iran, a million square kilometers. Do you have any doubts and suspicions the Iranians are concealing some of their nuclear sites, and especially centrifuge sites, and which we have no idea about?” His honest answer was: “It’s quite possible.”

As we know, in 2011-2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak were planning a military strike against nuclear facilities in Iran. The attack plan was based on the assumption we had reliable intelligence on all of the Iranian nuclear sites. That was a completely erroneous assumption.

In light of past experience, they should have taken into account the fact that the Iranians have nuclear facilities whose location that neither we nor the West have any idea about. Had we carried out the attack and destroyed the known sites, we can assume the Iranians would have been able to rehabilitate their nuclear capability very quickly – by means of those same sites we didn’t know about – and been able to develop nuclear weapons within a short time.

Therefore, the only way to act against Iranian armament is by diplomatic means – such as those that led to the present nuclear agreement, despite its shortcomings. This is the path that should be followed by the international community in the future, drawing lessons from the current agreement.

Haim Ramon served as deputy prime minister, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and as a cabinet member.