“Daddy, how do you know that Israel won’t die?” my 8-year son recently asked me, looking very scared and worried. He had come home from school that day, where he’d heard about rockets raining down from Gaza into Israeli cities. He was grappling in his own way with the fragility of Israel’s existence. I told him that Israel would always be here for us because of the countless people who would give their soul and life to protect the Jewish state and the values it holds dear.
Yaakov Katz, the Israeli-American editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, provides an extremely clear answer to my son’s question in his latest book, Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power. This exposé provides the full story behind Israel’s operation to destroy the al-Kibar nuclear reactor, which was built under the veil of secrecy and ultimately destroyed by the IDF in September 2007. Full of espionage, political courage and psychological warfare, this book is sure to thrill both the casual James Bond fan and the most serious followers of Middle Eastern politics.
In the 70 years since Israel’s founding, the country has faced enormous challenges, confronting diplomatic and economic isolation, an immense growth in its population and a war every decade. Its neighbors have often threatened its very existence and the lives of its inhabitants – Christian, Muslim and Jew. Katz describes in gripping detail the Begin doctrine, which set out Israel’s counter-proliferation policy, including preventative strikes to ensure the country’s enemies do not obtain weapons of mass destruction. Twice Israel has had to stare down the barrel of a hostile neighbor with a nuclear bomb – and in both cases it took out that capability with precision. No other country has had to act in the same way to ensure its survival.
The first strike took place in June of 1981, when Israel launched to destroy Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Despite worldwide condemnation, the Israeli government vowed never to allow an enemy to possess nuclear weapons. “This attack will be a precedent for every future government in Israel,” said Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in a haunting harbinger of what was to come. “Every future Israeli prime minister will act, in similar circumstances, in the same way.”
Shadow Strike begins with a daring raid on a hotel room in Vienna, where Ibrahim Othman, head of Syria’s Atomic Energy Commission, was staying. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave permission to Mossad’s Keshet Branch – known for covert overseas operations to collect secret data – to track Othman and to hack his computer if the chance arose. Katz describes the nail-biting scene in which the agents broke into the room and placed a Trojan horse on Othman’s laptop, providing the Mossad with permanent access to one of Syria’s most important computers. The organization very quickly learned that Othman was careless, savings hundreds of incriminating photos on the laptop.
What Israel’s intelligence community learned was shocking – and within a few weeks, Mossad head Meir Dagan, one of Israel’s most notorious spies, walked into the White House and met with the senior national security staff of President George W. Bush. Not one for small talk, he got right down to business. “Syria is building a nuclear reactor,” said Dagan in his thick Israeli accent. “For Syria to have a nuclear weapons program, to have a nuclear weapon, is unacceptable.” Dagan showed Vice President Dick Cheney and two senior national security experts, Stephen Hadley and Elliot Abrams, dozens of photos, including North Korean scientists posing as they helped build the reactor. Until then, the U.S. intelligence community had no evidence to support what Dagan was claiming. But soon, they pieced enough of the puzzle together to know it was true.
Prime Minister Olmert offered President Bush the opportunity to take out the reactor, but he made it clear that if America chose not to, Israel would. After months of consideration, Bush decided not to act – in part because of the consequences of faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war. Some members of Bush’s national security team, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, were adamant that the issue of Syria’s nuclear program had to be dealt with at the UN using diplomacy. But Bush told his “buddy” Olmert that he would not stand in his way and would allow Israel to act as she saw fit.
After significant deliberation, political intrigue and fighting among Israel’s elected leadership, Olmert decided to carry out a discreet raid to allow Assad to maintain plausible deniability about the bomb. But Olmert knew he needed to bomb the reactor before it went live, or he would be forced to consider an attack that would emit nuclear waste over a wide area, killing an untold number of Syrian civilians.
Katz describes the beginning of Operation Out of the Box, which began just before midnight on September 5, with four F-15Is and four F-16Is taking off from the Hatzerim base in southern Israel. They carried around 20 tons of bombs, more than enough to destroy a building less than 2,000 square meters. Going out over the Mediterranean and then straddling the border with Syria, the pilots maintained radio silence. The fighter jets commenced their bombing raid just after midnight, diving towards the reactor, and one after the other dropped their lethal load. Everything was captured on camera – the explosives were consecutive and massive – and the building was destroyed beyond repair. The pilots broke their radio silence to utter one word, “Arizona,” the code word for “mission accomplished.” A round of applause was heard and hugs exchanged in Tel Aviv.
Katz tells the story of an operation with which most people are not familiar, nor have they had the opportunity to consider what would have happened if the Syrian reactor had gone live. Had Israel not acted, it might have found itself living in the shadow of an ISIS armed with a nuclear bomb, which would have allowed it to morph from a terrorist organization into an existential threat to Israel and the entire Western world.
Shadow Strike concludes by asking readers to consider what Israel should do about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. Katz makes a compelling argument, but not about who is right or wrong. Rather, he demonstrates that Israel takes seriously its historic role in preserving the Jewish people and its tie to the land – and in ensuring that the answer to my son’s question is never taken for granted.
[Photo: public domain / Wikimedia Commons]