Engineers of Syrian nuclear reactor strike hail it as ‘historic’ and ‘brave’

Engineers of Syrian nuclear reactor strike hail it as ‘historic’ and ‘brave’

Officials recount details of newly acknowledged 2007 operation and issue warning to present-day ‘enemies,’ notably Iran

Avigdor Liberman (left) and Tzipi Livni shaking hands in January 2013. (Flash90)
Avigdor Liberman (left) and Tzipi Livni shaking hands in January 2013. (Flash90)

Politicians and former IDF officials expressed pride on Wednesday after the first official Israeli acknowledgement that the air force blew up a Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, in a daring strike that one former minister described as one of the most important Israeli strategic decisions in recent decades.

The official confirmation ended a 10-and-a-half-year policy of referring to the strike, known to much of the world as Operation Orchard — in the area of Deir Ezzor in the pre-dawn hours of September 6, 2007 — with a smirk and a wry “according to foreign reports.”

“The destruction of the nuclear reactor in Syria is an important episode in the history of Israel and its defense establishment,” said MK Amir Peretz (Zionist Union), who was defense minister until he was replaced by Ehud Barak two and a half months before the operation.

“I am proud of the opportunity I had to participate in the intelligence, operational and diplomatic planning of such a complex procedure,” Peretz wrote on Facebook. “It demonstrated that the State of Israel will not stand helplessly and will take any action needed to eliminate an existential threat.”

Zionist Union MK Amir Peretz at a Knesset meeting on February 1, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an interview with Army Radio, Peretz recounted that the Mossad chief had told him “he wanted to call an urgent meeting. He came and revealed the intelligence he had, frame by frame adding up to an entire jigsaw puzzle that indicates an unusual event.

“From that moment on, the hourglass began to tick,” he said. “It was clear that time was limited.”

MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), who was foreign minister during the operation, said that it was “one of the most important and justified security and strategic decisions Israel has taken in the last decades.”

“Even 11 years later, I remember the moments when we sat there in the command bunker in the Kirya base [in Tel Aviv] with the chief of staff and Air Force commander, listening to the reports on the operation’s progress, receiving the update that the reactor had been eliminated, waiting for our planes to return safely and hoping that the Israeli people would be able to keep sleeping calmly,” she said in a statement.

Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert at a cabinet meeting in 2007 (photo credit: Flash90)
Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert at a cabinet meeting in 2007 (photo credit: Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who was minister of strategic affairs in 2007, said that some in the cabinet had at the time hesitated while others pushed for the operation to be carried out.

“The historic and brave decision we took proved that we cannot be deterred on matters of security,” Liberman tweeted. “Try to imagine what would have happened if hadn’t we acted. We would face a nuclear Syria.”

Possibly hinting at Iran’s current nuclear ambitions and threats to destroy Israel, the defense minister added that “our enemies’ motivation has increased in recent years, but so has the might of the IDF… This should be understood by anyone in the Middle East.”

Intelligence Minister Israel Katz was more explicit, linking the Syria strike specifically 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 who threaten its existence,” Katz tweeted.

James Jeffrey, who was the United States’ deputy national security adviser at the time, told Army Radio that the US administration had completely supported Israel in carrying out the strikes.

“The US was on Israel’s side, president [George W.] Bush stressed that the priority was [Israel’s] security,” he said.

The pilot of an F-15I fighter jet, from the Israeli Air Force’s 69th Squadron, gets into his airplane ahead of an operation to bomb a Syrian nuclear reactor in Deir Ezzor on September 5, 2007. (Israel Defense Forces)

At the time, then-opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu was part of a small team of four members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee who closely monitored the attack in real time, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said Wednesday.

The team consisted of two coalition and two opposition lawmakers. Hanegbi, who at the time headed the influential Knesset committee, said that the team’s “intimate monitoring” of the strike was unprecedented. The Likud politician said he wanted Israel to publicly take credit for the attack, but the government insisted on secrecy.

Eliezer Shkedi, who was the Air Force commander at the time, recounted that almost a year before the strike, “I received raw information about very strange news, and for the first time I understood that there could be nuclear-related activity in Syria.”

“The main idea was to do it as low-profile and covertly as possible,” Shkedi told public broadcaster Kan. “Why? So we don’t reach a situation in which the Syrians immediately react and it turns into a war.”

Shkedi described how the operation received the approval of prime minister Ehud Olmert, chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Mossad chief Meir Dagan. He also reminisced about the jubilation felt after it was confirmed that it was successful.

“There are very few moments in life that a person feels they did something much bigger than them,” he said. “It wasn’t about the Air Force commander, the Air Force, the IDF or the prime minister. It was something big.”

Raphael Ahren and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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