Why did Israel own up to its Syria 2007 air raid?

Not being Assad is a virtue that Israel can boast of but it’s not enough.
Sunday 25/03/2018
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) listens to Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (AP)
Whispers no more. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu (R) listens to Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. (AP)

It was meant to be a media bombshell. Israel officially confirmed that it carried out an air raid targeting a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007.

The announcement broke an Israeli tradition of neither confirming nor denying military operations outside its borders.

Israeli commentators were preoccupied in analysing the events in the prism of domestic politics: Was it former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or former Defence Minister Ehud Barak who gave the order? Both leaders will have their memoirs published soon and their accounts of the incident will reportedly vary.

In addition, Israel’s intelligence agency the Mossad and the Military Intelligence Directorate made competing claims over who discovered the alleged Syrian nuclear programme, which was provided to Damascus by North Korea.

Domestic politics aside, the announcement was framed as a warning message to Iran.

“The courageous decision of the Israeli government almost 11 years ago to destroy the nuclear reactor in Syria and the successful operation following it sends a clear message: Israel will never allow nuclear weapons to countries like Iran that threaten its existence,” said Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz in a post on Twitter.

“That’s the message from [the 1981 Israeli raid against a nuclear reactor in Iraq], that’s the message from 2007 and that’s our future message to our enemies,” said Israeli Defence Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot.

“The motivation of our enemies has grown in recent years, but so too the might of the (Israeli army),” said Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. “Everyone in the Middle East would do well to internalise this equation.”

“Israel’s policy has been and remains consistent — to prevent our enemies from arming themselves with nuclear weapons,” said Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

A combination of handout images provided by the Israeli army on March 20 reportedly shows an aerial view of a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor during bombardment in 2007. (AFP)

While Israeli censors previously prohibited the national media from freely reporting on the 2007 raid, much of the outside world had a good idea of who was behind the attack. The Israelis intended for it to be an open secret.

Netanyahu, who then headed the opposition to Olmert’s government, praised the attack during an interview with Israel’s Channel 1 TV station a few weeks after the strike.

Unnamed US and Israeli officials were quoted in the New York Times confirming Israel’s involvement in the attack one month after it was carried out. Former President George W. Bush confirmed it in his 2010 memoir.

An investigative article published by the New Yorker in 2012 gave an extensive account of the incident citing senior Israeli officials.

Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration, wrote his account of the US-Israeli discussions regarding the strike in Commentary magazine in 2013.

The Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad chose not to make a fuss at the time because it would confirm its plans to make a nuclear bomb. During that period, there were secret and indirect talks between Israeli and Syrian officials over a possible rapprochement deal.

While the Israeli announcement is unlikely intended solely as a message to Iran, as Tehran was aware that Israel was responsible for the air strikes, it could be a public show of support to the Trump administration, whose new members — Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton — are foreign policy hawks known for their opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

It could also be an attempt to reach out to Arab countries threatened by Iran’s expansionist agenda. Tel Aviv hopes to normalise relations with the Arab world by highlighting the mutual threat of Iran - without making peace with the Palestinians.

If that is Israel’s intention, 70 years after the country’s founding, it appears it is still misreading the region. Because of Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians, it struggles to maintain “normal” ties with states that have long made peace with it: Egypt and Jordan.

Over the past seven decades, numerous ideologies have come and gone, many alliances have been formed and fallen yet public sympathy with the Palestinians has remained.

Without addressing the real issue — the plight of Palestinians — the best Israel can hope for is secretive relations and shambolic diplomatic ties in the region.

Not being Assad is a virtue that Israel can boast of but it’s not enough. If Israel invests as much effort in the Middle East peace process as it has invested in sidestepping it, it would make greater progress in forging relations with both governments and peoples of the region.