Israel’s government on Wednesday publicly confirmed for the first time that it had carried out an audacious 2007 strike against a reactor in Syria that could have produced nuclear weapons fuel, lifting a decade of secrecy surrounding the episode.
The country’s leaders used the occasion to warn that, if necessary, Israel would not hesitate to launch similar strikes again.
“The government of Israel, the IDF and the Mossad prevented Syria from developing a nuclear capability,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, referring to the Israel Defense Forces and the country’s spy agency. “Israel’s policy has been and remains consistent — to prevent our enemies from arming themselves with nuclear weapons.”
International tension has been mounting over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, which were supposed to have been contained by a 2015 agreement with the United States and its European allies. Mr. Netanyahu has criticized that deal as a historic mistake and Israel has set off alarms about Iran’s growing influence in Syria, where it is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s seven-year civil war.
During that conflict, Israel has carried out scores of other covert strikes in Syria against advanced weapons convoys and stores.
President Trump has said that unless the European nations agree to make the deal much stricter, he will back out of it on May 12, renewing suspended sanctions on Tehran.
As the strict, decade-old military censorship lifted at 5 a.m., Israelis awoke in a kind of time warp to blaring headlines and dramatic video of the destruction of the reactor, which was supplied to Syria by North Korea. The military revealed details of the operation, code-named Outside the Box, including how warplanes bombed the facility at around 2 a.m. on Sept. 6, 2007. It distributed photographs of the pilots with their faces blocked out to conceal their identities.
Accounts of the strike appeared long ago in international news media and former President George W. Bush wrote of it in his memoir, published in 2010. Though Israeli news organizations had fought for years to be able to report on it, they were barred from doing so until now.
The censorship was originally meant to allow Israeli and Syrian deniability, avoiding the kind of blatant humiliation that might have pushed Syria’s president to retaliate.
Israeli news organizations speculated on Wednesday about why the government lifted the secrecy about the operation.
The release also prompted a frenzied, if belated, public fight over who was responsible for the operation — chiefly between former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak.
Increasingly urgent appeals by Israeli journalists had forced military censors to reconsider the ban. And former officials pointed to the publication this week of Mr. Olmert’s memoir, which includes his account of the operation. Mr. Barak’s memoir is expected to come out in May.
Revisiting the episode may help rehabilitate the reputations of some of the protagonists, particularly Mr. Olmert, who resigned from office in 2008 in disgrace. Already blamed for what many Israelis saw as an unsuccessful war in Lebanon in 2006, he left under a cloud of criminal investigations and was later convicted of corruption charges. He served 16 months in jail before his release last year.
In excerpts from his book published in the newspaper Yediot Ahronot on Wednesday, Mr. Olmert accused Mr. Barak, who became defense minister in June 2007, of seeking to delay the attack on the reactor even if that meant waiting until after it had become “hot,” or operational. At that point, any strike could have led to radioactive contamination of a large area.
Mr. Olmert contended that Mr. Barak believed Mr. Olmert would soon have to resign, and that Mr. Barak could then carry out the strike himself and reap all the glory. Yediot Ahronot’s publishing house is publishing Mr. Olmert’s book.
Mr. Barak denied any such motivation in Israeli media interviews. Describing the atmosphere in Mr. Olmert’s security cabinet as one of “hysteria,” he said his interest had been in making sure the operation was properly planned and that contingencies were in place in case war broke out.
Arguments have also surfaced over whether discovery of the Syrian reactor was an intelligence coup or a failure. The definitive intelligence came so late that Israel had to scramble to destroy the facility before it became operational.
Amos Yadlin, the military intelligence chief at the time, told reporters on Wednesday that Israel had only the vaguest idea what was happening until months before the attack. Comparing the effort to a jigsaw puzzle, Mr. Yadlin said: “If you basically say that 1,000 parts are giving you a good picture, in 2006, we had, like, 50 parts, only the first suspicions that there is a nuclear program in Syria.”
Mr. Yadlin, who now directs the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said that a Mossad operation yielded something like “500 parts of the puzzle.” Then “we immediately understood that we are facing a project of a plutonium nuclear reactor which had only one purpose: to produce a nuclear bomb.” From that point, he said, Israel assessed correctly that it had six to nine months to strike before the reactor became operational.
According to a vivid 2012 account in The New Yorker, the breakthrough came in March 2007 when Mossad agents raided the Vienna home of Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, and extracted valuable information from his computer.
Israeli officials calculated that since so few people in Syria knew of the reactor, if Israel carried out an attack and did not take responsibility, Mr. Assad could deny it had happened and not strike back.
“Almost nobody in Syria knew about it, not even the chief of staff and the defense minister,” Mr. Yadlin said of the reactor.
Amir Peretz, Mr. Barak’s predecessor as defense minister, was involved in the early planning of the raid and related discussions with American officials. He said in an interview that the Israelis would have preferred for the United States to have destroyed the reactor, but quickly understood that they were on their own.
Western intelligence agencies had missed the signs of the project, partly because, from satellite pictures, it looked like a farm, he said.
“Usually, when somebody sets up a nuclear facility, it is surrounded by fences, antiaircraft batteries, soldiers,” Mr. Peretz said. “This was open — there were animals wandering around.”
Source: New York Times