Blast from the past: 8 things to know for March 21
Israel media review

Blast from the past: 8 things to know for March 21

With the open secret now out, coverage looks at details of the 2007 raid on a Syrian nuclear reactor, the intel failures leading up to it and why it was kept under wraps until now

An F-16I fighter jet of the Israeli Air Force's 119th Squadron prepares to take off during an operation to bomb a Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir Ezzor on September 5, 2007. (Israel Defense Forces)
An F-16I fighter jet of the Israeli Air Force's 119th Squadron prepares to take off during an operation to bomb a Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir Ezzor on September 5, 2007. (Israel Defense Forces)

1. The secret that was never really a secret is no longer a secret, after Israel’s military censor allowed publication Wednesday morning of acknowledgement and details of a strike on a Syrian nuclear facility a little over 10 years ago.

  • “The official confirmation ends a 10-and-a-half year policy of referring to the event with a smirk and a wry ‘according to foreign reports,’” Times of Israel military correspondent Judah Ari Gross writes. “At approximately midnight, the fighter jets reached their target and dropped — according to [an earlier report in The New Yorker by David] Makovsky — 17 tons of explosives on the site, which the air force had taken to calling Ein Habesor, or Habesor Spring, a reference to a location in southern Israel where, in the Bible, King David is said to have fought and killed the evil Amalekites.”

2. Much of the coverage focuses on the discussions leading up to the decision to carry out the bombing and the intelligence failures that kept Israel in the dark for so long, with some comparing it to Israel’s inability to see the 1973 Yom Kippur War coming.

  • “The scary thing about the whole story is that its detection happened completely by chance. Assad and the North Koreans were building a plutogenic reactor right under our noses in Deir al-Zour for five or six years. God knows how long. And we had no idea, with respect to our most highly covered intelligence target, that there was this reactor that was nearly at the activation stage,” Haaretz quotes a senior intelligence veteran saying.
  • “For years, Syria built a nuclear reactor under our noses, and we did not know about it. It was not built on the dark side of the moon, but in a neighboring country we always thought we knew almost everything about,” former Mossad head Tamir Pardo tells Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv in The Times of Israel.
  • The strike almost didn’t happen for a myriad of reasons pertaining to internal politics, worries over reactions, John Bolton blowing the lid off the fact that the West knew about the reactor in a Wall Street Journal op-ed a few days before the raid, and other reasons, including the fact that Israel was still freshly smarting from its less-than-winning experience in Lebanon the summer before.
  • “The raid occurred under the clouds of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006. The decision-makers split into two groups: The scarred graduates of what was then perceived as a loss in Lebanon or defense veterans who returned to the fold because of the forced retirement of some of the members of the first group,” Walla’s Amir Oren reports.

3. Handwringing also gives way to more gung-ho reactions, especially in the country’s populist tabloid publications.

  • “Even 10 and a half years later, the story of the destruction of the Syrian reactor sounds like a cinematic thriller,” Israel Hayom’s Yoav Limor writes. “One thing is clear, beyond all the arguments: The destruction of the North Korean reactor in Syria was one of the most successful missions carried out by Israel in its 70 years. The operational part, which began with intelligence speculation, continued with collection of information and in the end the reactor was bombed from the air as planned: The reactor was totally destroyed, the project was killed and [Syrian President Bashar] Assad was left with enough room for deniability to keep the incident from descending into a regional war.
  • The fact that Syria was torn to bits just a few years later, a situation that could have been made much worse had Assad had the bomb, is also noted ad nauseum.
  • Ben Caspit in al-Monitor includes a transcript of then-prime minister Ehud Olmert calling then-US President George W. Bush to tell him about the raid, kinda: “‘Where are you?’ Olmert asked. ‘Sydney,’ Bush responded. ‘How’s Sydney? Beautiful?’ asked Olmert. Bush was impatient. ‘So, prime minister, what did you want to tell me?’ The president knew that Israel had carried out the strike, but they couldn’t discuss this over the phone. ‘You remember that we talked about that thing in the north,’ Olmert said. ‘I remember,’ Bush replied. ‘So I wanted you to know that it no longer exists,’ Olmert said.”

4. Making sure Assad wasn’t forced to respond is why the story has been kept a badly held secret until now. Haaretz editor Aluf Benn calls it the genesis of Israel’s policy of keeping quiet about foreign operations and letting “foreign reports” do the work instead.

  • “For anyone who grew up with stories of Israel’s retaliatory raids against Arab fedayeen infiltration in the 1950s and aerial strikes deep inside Egypt during the War of Attrition, the official silence with regard to operations carried out beyond our borders represents a different kind of Israel. This is an Israel that’s willing to forgo self-congratulatory displays and commendations of pilots and commanders, in order to benefit from relative freedom of action and from the absence of international condemnation regarding, for example, the ‘violation of Syrian sovereignty,’” he writes.
  • Yet the release today has left many wondering why now? A number of news outlets are claiming credit for having appealed to the censor to make the information public, and TOI’s Judah Ari Gross notes it may also be meant to send a message to Iran.
  • The most likely reason, though, is the publication of Olmert’s prison memoir. Snippets of the book relating to the reactor are being published by Yedioth, whose book-publishing arm happens to be Olmert’s publisher.
  • In one passage, Olmert describes an almost comical scene as he was told for the first time about the reactor by then-Mossad head Meir Dagan.
  • Olmert says the room was totally silent, until suddenly there was a knock at the door. He told the person to go away, but media adviser Yanki Galanti popped his head in anyway and explained that Channel 2 was about to publish a story about suspicions that Olmert ordered the Bank of Israel to give an Australian buddy a tender. “They are waiting for our answer, Galanti said. I told him to tell them to go to hell,” he writes.

5. From real strikes to imaginary ones. With Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the US, the New York Times takes a deeper look at a cartoon released recently by someone in Saudi Arabia depicting an invasion of Iran, including the blowing up of Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power plant.

  • The paper notes that while Riyadh says it is not involved with the video, which was released simultaneously in several languages, including Hebrew, whoever did make it has an “insider’s familiarity the visual details of Saudi Arabian and Iranian weapons.”
  • The video also seems to dovetail closely with MBS’s wordview, and a closing scene showing Iranians cheering for the Saudi military shows people holding up as many pictures of the prince as of his father, still the titular ruler of the kingdom.
  • The paper says the video takes the Iranian-Saudi rivalry to a comical new height, and in al-Jazeera, analyst Marwan Bishara calls the actual meeting between MBS and US President Donald Trump on Tuesday a “tragicomedy.”
  • “On the political level, the American president is trying to sell the crown prince to the American public, when Saudi Arabia’s image is really bad,” he says.

6. In Gaza and the West Bank, a rivalry between Fatah and Hamas seems to be getting worse, with a Palestinian Authority official telling The Times of Israel’s Khaled Abu Toameh that Gaza could be declared a “rebel district,” which sounds like a term from Star Wars but actually means the PA would cut off all money to the enclave, worsening the humanitarian situation there.

  • PA President Mahmoud Abbas alluded to imposing new sanctions on Gaza in a speech Monday. Haaretz’s Amos Harel says that, plus the feeling the Palestinian leader is increasingly cornered, are what should be more worrying than his “son of a dog” curse hurled at US envoy David Friedman: “The slashing of aid from Ramallah coupled with the huge deficit in UNWRA funds and the American threat to completely cut off oxygen to the UN refugee agency could make life in Gaza unbearable this summer.”
  • Gazan university lecturer Atef Abu Saif writes heartbreakingly in a New York Times op-ed about the terrible situation in the Strip: “ Life in Gaza is hard. Then it gets worse and we think it’s intolerable. Then it gets even worse.”

7. Twitter stock took a dive Tuesday, and while the Jews are definitely to blame, analysts are split whether it’s Israel’s justice minister or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who are at fault.

  • According to some, Ayelet Shaked’s threat to take legal action against Twitter for allowing posts that constitute incitement scared off investors, sending shares tumbling some 10 percent.
  • “Such a move would be highly unusual, and it seems unlikely that Israel will follow through on its vague threat. Even then, however, it seems equally likely that the negative publicity generated by Shaked’s email will serve as a call-to-action for Twitter to accelerate its own initiatives to prevent such activity on — and remove existing questionable posts from — its platform,” Steve Symington writes in The Motley Fool.
  • However, others say Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal is making all social media firms unpalatable: “While it may seem counterintuitive that Facebook’s competitors are not benefiting from its current woes, concerns about data and privacy breaches on social media networks like Twitter and Snap are a major concern, and FB’s latest scandal has shone a blaring spotlight on the issue,” Samantha Chang writes in Investopedia.

8. Israeli AI startup Cortica is not publicly traded, but it’s safe to say Tuesday would have been a rollercoaster for it, after Tesla CEO Elon Musk denied rampant reports that he was in talks with the firm.

  • “This is completely false. Never even heard of Cortica. Just taking my kids on a Spring Break trip to see ancient historical sites in Israel & Jordan,” Musk deadpanned on Twitter.
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