An inside look at Israel’s ‘deniable’ airstrike on a Syrian reactor

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President George W. Bush, right, and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert
Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian

Review

“Shadow Strike; Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power” by Yaakov Katz. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019. 287 pages. $28.99.

You’re that proverbial fly on the wall when the head of the Mossad, Israel’s CIA, takes photos into the White House to show the nuclear reactor secretly being built in Syria. You’re seated at the table listening while Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and President George W. Bush discuss what to do about this facility, which both recognize as a mortal danger to the Jewish state. You buckle your seatbelt as you take off in a helicopter with Israeli elite commandos, disguised as Syrian soldiers, who are being sent into Syria to take soil samples and photograph the nuclear facility and must return undetected.

“Shadow Strike” gives you all those insider looks — and more.

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The book also provides readers with well-thought-out analyses of American and Israeli interests and constraints, explaining the limits of what the two sides could do in reaction to this crisis. Tying it all together in a very readable package, author Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief at The Jerusalem Post, has given the book the feel, pace and excitement of a Cold War thriller, even though it’s not fiction and the reactor’s fate is no secret.

So, why did American and Israeli leaders do what they did? The photos that Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad, brought to the White House in April 2007 showed a North Korean nuclear scientist at the site of the reactor. This first evidence that North Korea was helping the Syrians “wasn’t just shocking,” the author writes. “It was a strategic nightmare of worldwide proportions … North Korea wasn’t just sharing nuclear know-how with Syria, it was building a nuclear reactor there.”

American leaders immediately understood that the facility had to be destroyed. The question was: Would Israel or the United States do the destroying?

Israeli self-confidence had been shaken by its poor performance in the previous year’s war with the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. More important, leaders in the Jewish state feared that Syria would be less likely to start a war if the United States, rather than Israel, destroyed the reactor. Therefore, Olmert asked Bush to do the job.

But the United States was involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, going to war against the latter because U.S. intelligence had been certain that the Iraqis had weapons of mass destruction. None had been found.

American intelligence was sure that the facility was to be a nuclear reactor; however, neither it nor its Israeli counterpart could find any other part of a nuclear weapons program — a reprocessing facility or scientists working on assembling the final warhead. Afraid of another intelligence fiasco, Bush told Olmert that his country would not destroy the reactor.

When Israel decided to act on its own, it came up with the idea of creating a “deniability zone” for Assad.

Katz explains: “If Israel attacked but remained silent and didn’t ‘stick the reactor in his face,’ there was a good chance that Assad would restrain himself and refrain from retaliating … If Israel was quiet, Assad could carry on after a strike as if nothing had even happened.”

That strategy worked.

Olmert eventually would be sent to prison for accepting bribes and obstruction of justice during his term as mayor of Jerusalem. “But,” the author writes, “he would also be remembered as a man of action. When presented with a threat, Olmert never shied away from tough decisions.”
The world owes Israel much for taking out the Iraqi and Syrian reactors — the latter was built in a zone taken over by ISIS in 2014.

Should a similar action be required against Iran, however, Katz is not sure that the IDF would be as successful against that country’s hardened and dispersed facilities.

Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.

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