MKs warned about Syria’s nuke plans years before 2007 reactor strike – report

Committee headed by Yuval Steinitz sent PM Sharon a memo in 2004 saying that Damascus was working on a nuclear program

Before and after satellite images of the Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kibar, which was reportedly struck by Israel in 2007.(AP/DigitalGlobe)
Israel Defense Forces

A Knesset committee warned of Syria’s nuclear ambitions two years before Israeli spies found evidence a reactor was being built, leading to its eventual destruction in an air raid, according to a report Tuesday.

In March, the State of Israel officially confirmed it was responsible for a September 6, 2007 airstrike that blew up the reactor near Deir Ezzor, ending a 10-and-a-half-year policy of silence about the operation.

According to officials, Israeli spies only received definitive proof of the reactor’s existence in mid-2006, when it was well underway, in what was described as a major intelligence failure. Both the Mossad and Military Intelligence took credit for uncovering the reactor’s existence.

However, documents aired by the Hadashot TV news outlet Tuesday show that a small team of lawmakers flagged what looked like a possible Syrian nuclear program in 2004.

“Analysis of all intelligence information indicates with a high level of probability that a Syrian military nuclear project is going on,” a commission of inquiry wrote in a top secret, emergency memo to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon. “Since the issue is of the utmost strategic importance, I request that the prime minister urgently hold a comprehensive discussion on the subject.”

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, then the head of the Knesset’s powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, had set up the commission of inquiry with the goal of making sure Israel knew if any country in the region was pursuing nuclear capabilities.

The official raison d’etre for the panel was to examine the intelligence failures that led to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi pursuing a nuclear program without Israel being able to thwart him.

“A nuclear project is growing in a hostile Arab state with a madman like Gaddafi, and we do not know until we are told,” warned Steinitz at the time.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz attends the weekly government conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, October 29, 2017. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Flash90)

Former MK Haim Ramon, who was on the panel, said he was tipped off by Syrian President Bashar Assad saying that “We need to reach a strategic parity with Israel.”

“What strategic parity could Syria reach with Israel other than non-conventional weapons?” Ramon told Hadashot. He said it was clear Assad was were referring to nuclear weapons.

However, defense officials thought Assad was speaking only of his intent to develop ballistic missiles and chemical weapons.

Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, a general who headed military intelligence from 2002 until 2006, told Hadashot he didn’t remember the events as they had been described in the report. But he added that Syria was not the army’s top priority at a time when the Second Intifada was at its peak, the Hezbollah terror group was growing on Lebanese border and concerns were rampant about other countries’ nuclear ambitions, likely a reference to Iran.

The committee only made nine copies of its report, and until Hadashot requested the censor declassify it for publication it had never been made public.

The strike against Syria constituted Israel’s second application of the Begin Doctrine, which calls on the Jewish state to destroy any enemy country’s nuclear capabilities. The doctrine was named for prime minister Menachem Begin, who set its precedent by ordering the bombing of Iraq’s nascent nuclear reactor in 1981. (In that instance, Israel took responsibility for the attack almost immediately, to much international reprobation.)

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)

“The message of the attack on the reactor in 2007 is that Israel will not accept the construction of a capability that threatens the existence of the State of Israel. That was the message in ’81. That was the message in 2007. And that is the message to our enemies for the future,” IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said in a March statement regarding the 2007 bombing.

According to Israeli and American intelligence, the Deir Ezzor site, known in Syria as al-Kibar, contained a gas-cooled, graphite-moderated reactor that was capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, similar to North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear facility.

It was close to being up and running when Israel destroyed it in Operation Orchard (which the army also refers to as Nigun Shaket, or Silent Melody, and Mihutz Lakufsa, or Outside the Box).

The declassification of the strike and deliberations leading up to it in March sparked a public spat between the Mossad and Military Intelligence, with officials from each accusing the other of dropping the ball by not noticing the plant’s construction earlier, when it would have been safer to hit.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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