Excerpts from a book written by Middle East expert David Makovsky, appearing in The New Yorker, reveal new details on the decision-making process leading up to Israel’s strike on Syria’s nuclear reactor in September 2007 that could provide possible parallels to the present-day situation with Iran.
The story begins in March 2007, when Israeli Mossad agents uncovered detailed photographs of Syria’s nuclear facility, al-Kibar, after breaking into the Vienna home of Ibrahim Othman, the head of Syria’s program.
Ehud Olmert, then Israel’s prime minister, established a secret committee comprising former prime ministers — Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu — as well as the heads of Israel’s intelligence and defense establishments to be a decision-making body.
Next, Olmert shared the evidence with the United States, which started a CIA investigation. While the CIA confirmed the same photographic findings as the Mossad, that it was a nuclear facility, it was unable to “identify the other essentials of a weapons program, such as a reprocessing plant or active work on a warhead,” according to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who was quoted by Makovsky. Based on that, President George W. Bush decided against an attack.
Without U.S. support, Olmert decided to unilaterally attack Syria by invoking the Menachem Begin Doctrine—a policy to never allow enemy countries to obtain nuclear weapons based on the 1981 Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor.
Israel completed a successful bombing of Syria’s nuclear complex on Sept. 5, 2007. Eight Israeli fighter jets, using radar-jamming technology, flew into Syria and dropped 17 tons of bombs on the al-Kibar site.
But since the attack five years ago, Syria has continued to deny that it was building a nuclear program and Israel has denied carrying out the operation. Syria also has never retaliated against Israel for the operation.
Nevertheless, the Begin Doctrine could be invoked again today against Iran’s nuclear program, especially considering reports of the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike, continuing evidence on Iran’s secret program, and disagreements between the U.S. and Israel over Iran.
Makovsky quotes Olmert on the possibility of another unilateral Israeli strike, this time on Iran: “Each case must be examined separately. … The Iraqi case was different from the Syrian case, and the Syrian case is diﬀerent from the Iranian case. …Worse comes to worst, and all options have been tried, then, naturally, it may force Israel to act to defend its existence. … But it must be clear that we tried with the international community, and particularly with the United States, to act together before we resort to the last option of an Israeli military operation.”