Israel tight-lipped over report on strike on Syria reactor

Israel was tight-lipped following Monday’s extensive revelations by The New Yorker magazine about the September 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor which, according to foreign sources, was carried out by the Israel Air Force. Israel has never taken officially responsibility for the incident.

Then-Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. (res.) Gabi Ashkenazi told the Calcalist financial conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, “This morning I got up and I read in the newspaper and I heard [through the media] that in 2007 the IDF attacked some Syrian reactor. I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I do know that one shouldn't discuss everything.” According to the report, Ashkenazi was the one who recommended a low-profile air strike five years ago.

Environment Minister Gilad Erdan appeared to allude to the strike in an interview with Israel Radio on Tuesday on the issue of a possible Israeli strike on Iran. “According to what was reported, then, too, President [George W.] Bush was not enthused by an attack, did not agree to the United States taking part, and in any event the right step was taken,” Erdan said.

Asked by Reuters when Israel might give an on-record account of what happened at the Syrian reactor at Deir al-Zor, dropping its censorship order, a defense official said there was no such decision pending.

But the official also indicated that Israel no longer felt the same reluctance to offend Damascus, having written off President Bashar al-Assad as the Syrian insurgency deepens.

“Can you imagine what the mess in Syria would look like today if Assad had nukes?” the official said.

According to The New Yorker article, written by David Makovsky, Mossad agents broke into the Vienna home of Ibrahim Othman, the head of the Syrian Atomic Energy Commission, on March 7, 2007. Israel was seeking information on the possibility that Syria had renewed its interest in a nuclear program, a suspicion that originally arose in Israel in 2006.

Othman was in Vienna to participate in a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors. Mossad agents reportedly entered his home, hacked into his personal computer and copied from it several dozen photos taken inside the secret Syrian nuclear facility. The facility itself was very similar to a North Korean nuclear site in Yongbyon.

Israel immediately understood what was taking place at the Syrian facility, which was located near the border with Turkey, and it was clear the Begin Doctrine had to be implemented. According to this doctrine, Israel must not permit any enemy country to obtain nuclear weapons, and the government must act as Prime Minister Menachem Begin did in 1981 when he ordered the IAF to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor.

Then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan and other officials met with then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and presented their findings to him, along with the recommendation that immediate action be taken before the nuclear material in the Syrian reactor became active. If an attack was carried out after the material became active, there was a danger that radiation would leak and contaminate the nearby Euphrates River.

Olmert reportedly held meetings with former prime ministers Shimon Peres, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak on the matter. These meetings, which took place between the end of March and start of September 2007, were always held on Fridays. The participants were made to sign secrecy agreements.

On April 18, Israel informed the U.S. about the Syrian nuclear reactor during a meeting between then-Defense Minister Amir Peretz and his American counterpart Robert Gates. The information from this meeting was passed on to the government of then-U.S. President George W. Bush.

The article reported that Peretz, who did not have a good command of English, read from notes prepared in advance as he made the revelation to Gates.

The Bush administration felt that it did not have enough evidence to justify a U.S. attack on the reactor and Israel began to plan an independent strike. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice believed that an Israeli attack on the Syrian reactor would lead to a regional war.

Olmert asked Bush to again consider an attack on the Syrian reactor, saying that this would serve American interests. For the Americans, an attack would kill two birds with one stone, as it would deter the Iranians.

On July 12, Bush convened a meeting with advisers. After the meeting, Bush wanted to send a special letter to Assad containing an ultimatum to dismantle the reactor. Olmert warned Bush that the opening of a diplomatic channel would only give Assad time, during which the reactor would become active.

The Israel Defense Forces, Mossad and then-Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni all supported a low-profile strike on the Syrian reactor. Israel also examined the possibilities of a larger-scale air strike or a commando operation on the ground.

Experts in Israel assessed that a low-profile strike would not provoke a military response from Syria, as Assad would seek to deny he had a nuclear project, the existence of which would have contradicted his past declarations.

In June 2007, an elite IDF unit was sent into Syria. The soldiers collected soil samples and secretly photographed the reactor site from a distance of 1.5 kilometers.

In the meantime, Barak had replaced Peretz as defense minister. According to the article, Barak asked that the attack be delayed to give the IDF more time to plan and prepare the strike.

Six cabinet discussions were held on the matter in the following weeks. Government ministers said these meetings were very dramatic. The final discussion was held on Sept. 5, when Olmert, Barak and Livni were given authority to decide the nature and timing of the attack. Every minister voted in favor of the attack, except Public Security Minister Avi Dichter, who abstained.

Olmert, Barak and Livni retired to a side room where they were joined by then-IDF Chief of Staff Ashkenazi, who recommended that a low-profile air strike be carried out that night. Ashkenazi’s recommendation was accepted.

Operation Orchard was launched close to midnight when four F-16s and four F-15s took off from an IAF base. The planes flew north along the Mediterranean coast before turning east and flying along the Syrian-Turkish border. The planes used electronic warfare devices to blind Syria's aerial defense network.

Olmert, Barak and Livni monitored the operation from the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv. Between 12:40 and 12:53 a.m. on Sept. 6, the planes transmitted the code word “Arizona” to headquarters, indicating that 17 tons of explosives had been dropped on the target.

“There was a sense of elation,” an Israeli official was quoted as telling The New Yorker. “The reactor was destroyed and we did not lose a pilot.”

After returning to his secondary office at the IDF headquarters, Olmert called Bush, who was in Australia at the time.

“I just want to report to you that something that existed doesn’t exist anymore,” Olmert told Bush.

Syria did not officially confirm the attack, saying only that IAF planes had entered Syrian airspace and then exited after dropping munitions in empty areas.

Japan turns to U.S. in face of worsening nuclear crisis

Japan said Wednesday that further assistance from the United States was needed to help keep the nuclear cores at a power plant from overheating, after last week’s quake and tsunami knocked out the plant’s cooling systems.

Tokyo may also request the help from members of the U.S. military stationed in Japan, government spokesman Yukio Edano said.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said it has sent two experts to Japan, and had been asked to send cooling equipment.


Jewish groups gear up for Ahmadinejad’s trip to N.Y.

NEW YORK (JTA) — With hundreds of world leaders, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, slated to come here next week for the annual opening of the U.N. General Assembly, Jewish groups will be campaigning both privately and publicly against the Iranian regime.

The centerpiece of the public effort will be a mass protest rally Sept. 22 at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, across from the United Nations.

Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, will be among the featured speakers, according to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which is organizing the demonstration.

Meanwhile, behind closed doors, leaders of a handful of Jewish groups will take advantage of the opportunity to meet with presidents, prime ministers and top diplomats to press issues of concern to Jews.

“It’s an annual diplomatic marathon with leaders who descend on New York each year for the opening of the G.A.,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “We have 60 to 70 private individual meetings scheduled. At each meeting, the Iran question is at the top of the agenda.”

The efforts come as chances dim for a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran, given that Russia and China, both veto-wielding members of the Security Council, oppose new sanctions.

Jewish groups will be lobbying world leaders to enforce existing U.N. sanctions and take further steps against Iran wherever possible. They will urge countries to cut trade with the Islamic Republic, pass new laws against doing business with Iran and strengthen the coalition of nations actively trying to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The effort already is under way in Washington, where Jewish groups are lobbying Congress to close legal loopholes that allow U.S. businesses to conduct some trade with Iran.

Concomitant with the behind-the-scenes diplomacy, which is also conducted throughout the year, in part with visits by Jewish organizational leaders to capitals around the world, Jewish groups are going public, too.

They are trying to publicly shame oil companies that do business with Iran in a bid to cripple the oil trade that helps sustain the Tehran regime, highlight what Jewish groups say is Ahmadinejad’s genocidal threats, and educate the general public about Iranian-sponsored terrorism and the threat of a nuclear Iran.

The Anti-Defamation League has been waging a public campaign against oil companies with business in Iran by issuing a steady stream of news releases highlighting their activities. Among the companies are Shell and the Austrian energy giant OMV, which are planning to be part of a conference in Tehran in October to promote gas export opportunities with Iran. The Swiss government also is actively increasing its oil trade with Iran.

On the genocide issue, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs will host a half-day conference in Washington on Sept. 23 highlighting Tehran’s abysmal human rights record and the forecasts of Israel’s destruction by Ahmadinejad, who is scheduled to address the General Assembly that day.

Though attendance at the Washington event, “Conference on State-Sanctioned Incitement to Genocide: What Can Be Done?” will be limited to approximately 120 participants, organizers are hoping the invitation-only crowd of members of the U.S. Congress and their staffers, the media and Washington’s foreign diplomatic corps will help sway those in positions of power to join the coalition of nations actively opposing the Iranian leader’s genocidal incitement.

“The idea is that Ahmadinejad is in violation of the most important human rights convention, the genocide convention, and as a result should be treated accordingly,” said Dore Gold, the president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “There has been a growing number of voices who accept this determination.”

That same argument will be made much more publicly a day earlier when thousands of people are expected to converge on midtown Manhattan for a rally to protest Iran’s policies. In addition to Palin, featured speakers are expected to include U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Iranian dissidents, black ministers and Jewish leaders.

Organizers will be busing in demonstrators from as far away as Toronto and Montreal, and synagogue groups, schools and community groups all have been broadcasting the message to constituents to come out for the rally, which is scheduled to kick off at 11:45 a.m. The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York is organizing the event in conjunction with the Presidents Conference.

Jewish groups held a similar demonstration last year during Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York for the 2007 General Assembly. During the visit he also spoke at a forum at Columbia University.

Ahmadinejad this year is expected to attend a Sept. 25 break-fast Ramadan dinner, known as an iftar, hosted by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization.

The Quaker group and the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City, where the iftar is to be held, did not respond to JTA inquiries about the event.

Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, said the point of the rally is to send a message to world leaders and to Ahmadinejad himself.

“He knows all about it; last year in every television interview he made reference to it,” Hoenlein said of last year’s protest. “It was covered pretty widely in Iran, which is very important for us. We’re not going to be silent when someone threatens to destroy the United States and Israel, when his country engages in the persecution of women, minorities, human rights and children.”

When Ahmadinejad delivers his speech at the General Assembly the following day, Israel’s representatives likely will exit the plenum but leave a note taker behind, as they did last year.

Israeli President Shimon Peres will address the General Assembly the next day, on Sept. 24. Israeli officials declined to discuss the details of his speech.

For all their efforts, Jewish groups’ ability to get governments around the world to tighten the screws on Iran has its limits.

“What leverages are there to apply against these governments except moral suasion?” said the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress, Michael Schneider. “We don’t have a big stick that we can use.”

Harris said the argument to make is not that stopping Iran is a moral imperative for Israel or the Jewish people, but that a nuclear-armed Iran threatens the world.

“A key to diplomacy is to try to persuade someone else not that it’s in your interest, but why it’s in their interest to act,” Harris said.

“On Iran, we think there’s an abundance of evidence of why this is a regional and global problem: A nuclear Iran would create an entirely different and more dangerous geo-strategic environment generally, and a nuclear Iran would surely trigger a collapse of the nonproliferation treaty, and a number of other countries would go down the nuclear road in response to Iran,” he said. “Those arguments are compelling arguments whether you’re Israel’s closest friend or not.”