Opinion

Why Was Israel's Attack on Syria's Reactor Suddenly Cleared for Publication?

After Israel kept the bombing under wraps for a decade, the sudden disclosure leaves the bitter taste of ulterior motives

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

“When they brought me Drucker’s report, I didn’t fall off my chair.” Never have I been so pleased that someone would minimize the importance of my reporting.

The first time we tried to challenge the military censor’s office over the story of the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor, Ehud Olmert was still prime minister. Channel 10 News and I submitted a limited report for broadcast for the approval of the censor’s office, a report dealing with claims made by “members of the security cabinet” regarding the conduct of then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak in the months prior to the attack. The censor’s office turned us down.

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We appealed. The main expert who came to address the forum authorized to consider the matter was the chief of Military Intelligence at the time, Amos Yadlin. It is Yadlin who was responsible for the above quote.

After Yadlin left, I tried my luck: “You’ve heard the head of Military Intelligence. If he says the report doesn’t harm the country’s security, how can it be barred?

“With all due respect to Yadlin, the authority is in my hands and not his, and I am barring the report,” replied the chief military censor at the time, Sima Vaknin. And in an exchange of words, she blurted out: “You don’t really believe that Barak delayed the attack on the reactor out of political considerations. That’s nonsense.”

I didn’t believe what I was hearing. I had known Vaknin to be a professional. Was it possible that there were ulterior motives involved in the decision to bar publication? To protect the boss, Barak?

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Channel 10 News and I filed a petition to the High Court of Justice. We produced quotes showing that the report didn’t present a lot that was new. Back in September of 2008, for example, retired Maj. Gen. Isaac Ben-Israel had told a community event in Be’er Sheva that “Barak opposed attacking the Syrian reactor.” It didn’t help. Shai Nitzan of the prosecutor’s office explained that Ben-Israel was not an official figure on the matter. The justices nodded empathetically and threw us out of court.

A few years later, we again petitioned the High Court. This time we came equipped with an entire film that included four interviews with Israeli decision makers and three senior American officials and, most notably, acknowledgements on the part of Israeli representatives regarding Israeli attacks in Syria in general and this attack in particular.

Representatives of the prosecutor’s office were asked an interesting question: If the secret is so great and the danger to state security so major, did anyone ask those interviewed in the film not to speak further with anyone? No, acknowledged the state’s representatives. It also turned out that it didn’t appear terribly problematic to them at the time that a technician recording the session and a photographer and a video editor and reporter would hear these things.

Two years later, a criminal investigation was opened involving precisely the same disclosure by Olmert. The offices of the publisher of his memoirs, Yedioth Books, were raided and it was claimed to be inconceivable that the staff of the publisher would be exposed to this gigantic secret without appropriate security clearance.

Over the past several years, a conspiracy theory circulated that the military censor was not allowing the disclosure because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t want to see any glory given to Olmert. I didn’t believe it. The censor’s office always appeared to me an absurd place, but it was businesslike.

All of a sudden in October, the censor’s office decided to permit publication of an Israeli admission regarding the bombing of the reactor. The office had said that over the period of years, if a Channel 10 reporter had talked about the attack or broadcast an interview with a former prime minister, Syria’s dictator was liable to respond militarily.

The argument held for 10-1/2 years and then all of a sudden the disclosure was allowed in a twisted, faulty process in which ultimately it was not a Channel 10 reporter who spoke about it or even a former prime minister, but rather the current army chief of staff, air force commander and defense minister. Photos and recordings from the mission were also released. From a view that even a quasi-official admission of the bombing of the reactor would bring major risks to national security, we have now reached the point where official acknowledgement does no harm at all.

Allowing the disclosure was justified years ago. The view that it is better not to know is appropriate for dictatorships where the belief is that the most critical issues should be considered by a handful of people, and that the public should never be able to judge their actions.

If that’s the case, this entire process leaves a bitter taste of ulterior motives, both when the report was barred and when it was cleared for publication.