The March 21 decision by Israel’s military to publicly acknowledge its destruction of a plutonium reactor in Syria in 2007 should have sparked a celebration of national pride. Instead, it set off turmoil, which included competing versions of events and accusations surrounding Operation Out of the Box (the code name for the bombing of the reactor). Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo said that it was “a resounding intelligence fiasco,” and that if it wasn’t for a small group of Mossad agents who brought the “golden intel” (the Israel Defense Forces’ term for significant/decisive information), no one would have known about the reactor. The former head of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Amos Yadlin, contradicted this, saying military intelligence had found signs of a nuclear reactor in Syria as early as 2006. He said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strategy to pursue an ambitious, secretive nuclear project came as a surprise, but that the people responsible for uncovering this strategic surprise, those who prevented a strategic disaster and spearheaded an impressive strategic success, were members of the Israeli intelligence community.
As far as is known, Yadlin is the only person who played a major role in the destruction of not one but two military-grade nuclear reactors. Back in 1981, he was one of two Israeli F-16 pilots who destroyed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor, as ordered by then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. In 2007, he was head of the Intelligence Division when Israel was stunned to discover that Assad had constructed a plutonium reactor in the middle of the Syrian desert and that it was about to be hooked up to the Euphrates River and become operational. Criticism of Israeli intelligence focuses on the idea that it took Israel far too long to locate the reactor. Military intelligence first identified Syria’s nuclear activity only in late 2005.
Syria is a major strategic target for Israeli intelligence. It was assumed for years that Israel knew about every ant crawling across the Syrian desert. A significant part of Israel’s intelligence resources and infrastructures were invested in Syria for years, but particularly during the time that the reactor was built. Back then, Assad was still a stable leader who controlled a powerful, well-trained army with numerous armored divisions and thousands of long-range missiles and rockets threatening Israel. “How was it possible for Assad to construct a huge nuclear reactor right under our noses, and yet we only found out about it at the last minute?” a former senior Israeli intelligence official pondered to Al-Monitor, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The question ignores the fact that military intelligence’s tech specialists had collected intelligence about Syria’s nuclear activity as early as 2005. The information began dribbling in like the pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle, but the picture gradually became clear. The leaders of military intelligence were increasingly convinced that Assad was building a nuclear reactor. The feud between the Mossad and Military Intelligence may have to do with the fact that initially, the Mossad disagreed with military intelligence’s 2006 assessment that Assad was pursuing a nuclear option and reduced the probability of the assessment that this was really happening.
Ultimately, it was Mossad agents who engaged in the operation that led to the golden intel confirming the suspicions of military intelligence regarding the nuclear reactor. According to a report by the New Yorker magazine, the Mossad hacked the computer of Ibrahim Othman in Vienna and found detailed images of the reactor (Israel never took responsibility for this operation). Then Mossad chief Meir Dagan could not believe that this evidence was actually found and cast the whole effort in doubt. There are “no bears and no reactors,” Dagan then told his colleague Yadlin (playing on a popular Israeli expression “no bears and no wood”). When the “bears” turned out to be a reactor, Dagan had a change of heart and pushed for the more aggressive approach advocated by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who ordered that the reactor be destroyed as quickly as possible.
Feuds between military intelligence and the Mossad over who takes credit for what are nothing new in Israel. The difference is that the current feud spilled out of the security establishment and turned into mudslinging between two former prime ministers, Olmert and Ehud Barak. Olmert, who recently completed a prison sentence, released his autobiography this week. In it, he accuses Barak, who served as his defense minister in 2007, with trying to put off the attack on the nuclear reactor for as long as possible for purely political considerations. According to Olmert’s version of events, Barak believed that he would soon replace Olmert as prime minister. He therefore preferred to see the nuclear reactor destroyed on his watch so that he could garner all the credit for it. In the end, Olmert was able to win the support of his Cabinet and bring his defense minister in line. The Syrian reactor was destroyed in September 2007. Barak’s version of events is the exact opposite. He claims that it was only because of his insistence that the army was able to hone its plans and preparations and that, as a result, the attack on the reactor, when it finally occurred, was much more efficient. Regardless of what actually happened, the two men attacked each other over the weekend, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a grand old time watching from the sidelines.
It is doubtful whether this argument between military intelligence and the Mossad will ever be resolved. It is part of a larger question of worldview. The Mossad stuck to its position that the Syrian reactor should have been discovered at an earlier stage, while military intelligence points rightfully to the bottom line and the results. Military Intelligence insists that in the two years preceding the bombing of the reactor, it accumulated evidence, suspicions and indications that caused it to insist that Assad really was pursuing a nuclear reactor, and that it was this insistence that finally forced the Mossad to launch the operation that produced the evidence that clinched the deal. According to military intelligence, all of this happened within a timespan that allowed the political leadership to consider the options while the military prepared a successful operation without any pressure. Military Intelligence contends that this was the bottom line. It is not always possible to know everything everywhere. Given the final results, the activities conducted by Israeli intelligence were exemplary.
Why did the authorities only allow the fact that Israel destroyed the Syrian reactor to be released now? It all begins with the “space of denial,” a term coined by military intelligence at the time. It was intended to allow Assad to hold back on responding to the reactor’s destruction and avoid launching a comprehensive war against Israel. Since the construction of the reactor was kept completely secret in Syria, with only the leader’s most intimate circle even knowing about it, Olmert assumed that if Israel didn’t admit to the attack and maintained absolute “radio silence,” Assad could climb down from his high horse without having to defend his honor with a military attack on Israel. That is exactly what happened. Officially, Israel maintained its silence, even ignoring international reports, and Assad showed restraint.
A decade has passed since then. Assad is not the same Assad, Syria is not the same Syria, and everybody knows who blew up the reactor. The military censor allowed some of the details to be published for two reasons. The first was growing pressure by the Israeli media, including appeals to the Supreme Court against the military censor. The second was the release of Olmert’s autobiography. Chief military censor Brig. Gen. Ariella Ben Avraham realized that it was only a matter of time before the courts ordered her to allow publication of the story. Israel’s military censor is only authorized to prevent publication of information if it poses a real threat to state security or puts lives at risk. Meanwhile, Olmert was applying considerable pressure to allow his book to be published, with information about the bombing of the reactor. In the end, the chief military censor accepted the situation and the ban on publication was lifted. That’s when everybody started to squabble.