The Lessons of Israel’s Destruction of the Syrian Nuclear Reactor

July 12, 2019 | Michael Doran
About the author: Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East (2016), is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and a former senior director of the National Security Council. He tweets @doranimated.

In 2007, having been presented with evidence that Syria was building a nuclear reactor in the town of al-Kibar, President George W. Bush told the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert that not only would the U.S. not take action, but he expected Jerusalem to show restraint. Olmert nonetheless ordered the daring air raid that destroyed the site. In his book on the episode, Yaakov Katz notes that, after learning of the operation, Bush did not reprimand Olmert but instead offered his support in the event of a Syrian response. Michael Doran writes in his review:

In 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin chose to attack the Osirak reactor in Iraq without consulting the Americans at all. The operation was a resounding success, but the Reagan administration lashed out in anger. It stopped the delivery of four F-16 aircraft to Israel and supported a UN Security Council resolution that labeled the attack a “clear violation” of both the UN Charter and international norms. Unfazed, Begin praised the operation as “a precedent for every future government in Israel.”

Olmert recognized the force of the precedent—but with a twist. Keeping the Americans informed every step of the way, he gave future Israeli leaders an additional model of alliance maintenance. . . . Although the bet that Olmert placed on Bush [in warning him beforehand] entailed some risks, he always held a trump card up his sleeve: the IDF. Olmert was confident from the outset that even if the Americans would oppose military action, Israel still possessed the tools to get the job done.

One of Olmert’s colleagues, Katz reports, . . . the air-force commander Major General Eliezer Shkedi, had distributed a dramatic photo to countless Israeli soldiers and airmen. The photo captures the moment when three Israeli F-15s, operating on Shkedi’s orders, defied Polish authorities and flew low over Auschwitz. Shkedi had personally inscribed most of the photos, “To remember. Not to forget. To rely only on ourselves.” Shkedi was the man responsible for planning the al-Kibar operation.

This exhortation to self-reliance is laudatory, but as practical advice to prime ministers it probably requires a slight revision: “To remember. Not to forget. To rely, when necessary, only on ourselves.” Olmert was wise to seek assistance from Bush, and he did so shrewdly, but his readiness to go it alone in very trying circumstances was his greatest asset. Without that, Bush’s red light would never have turned to green.

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