Red Light, Green Light

In early July 2007, President George W. Bush called Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert to deliver a significant message. Some three months earlier, Olmert had dispatched Meir Dagan, the head of the Mossad, to Washington to inform Bush of a startling discovery by Israeli intelligence. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, with the help of the North Koreans, was building a nuclear reactor. Assad had hidden the facility, soon to be known as al-Kibar, in the east of the country, in a remote valley near Deir Ezzor. Destroying it, they said, was imperative—and the clock was ticking. In a few months, the Syrians would introduce fuel rods into the reactor’s core, after which it would be impossible to attack, because bombing would ultimately disperse radioactive material into the Euphrates River, which would carry it downstream to Iraq, poisoning countless civilians in two countries.

Olmert expected that the president would agree that the reactor had to be destroyed. He preferred for the American military to do the job, but if that was not possible, he hoped Bush would give his approval for an Israeli strike. When the president came on the line, however, he not only refused to destroy al-Kibar but said that he also expected Israel to behave with restraint. He planned to send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Jerusalem in the coming days. Olmert and Rice, Bush explained, would hold a joint press conference at which they would refer al-Kibar to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and to the United Nations.

For Olmert, this approach merely offered Assad an opportunity to save the reactor. “I understand your reasoning,” he told the president, “but don’t forget that the ultimate responsibility for the security of the State of Israel rests on my shoulders and I’ll do what needs to be done and trust me—I will destroy the atomic reactor.” The bluntness surprised Bush, but he did not rebuke Olmert. “We will not get in your way,” he said. There would be no press conference with Secretary Rice.

Two months later, on September 6, Israeli warplanes successfully struck al-Kibar. They eliminated the reactor but did so in a particularly stealthy manner, one calculated to allow Assad to save face by behaving as if the attack never happened. Assad did not disappoint. He neither remonstrated nor retaliated, thereby avoiding an escalation that might have led to all-out war.

The Syrian al-Kibar nuclear reactor before (left) and after (right) it was destroyed by Israel, on September 6, 2007. (Israel Defense Forces.)

The July conversation between Bush and Olmert is the dramatic turning point in Shadow Strike by Yaakov Katz, the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post. Based on extensive interviews with the major players in Washington and Jerusalem, the book tells for the first time the full story of the discovery of al-Kibar, the ensuing diplomacy with Washington, and the planning and execution of the Israeli air attack that destroyed the reactor.

Katz’s storytelling brings a hair-raising, deeply consequential, and largely forgotten episode to life. As someone who served in the Bush White House working on the Middle East until April 2007, just days before Meir Dagan came to Washington, I am intimately familiar with the political and diplomatic context of the events that Katz narrates. To the best of my knowledge, his account is not only fascinating but accurate in both fact and judgement.

A few years back, I asked a friend, a retired Mossad officer, to name the Israeli leader he respected most. His answer surprised me. “Ehud Olmert,” he said without hesitation. Why? “Olmert had a bias in favor of action, made clear decisions very quickly, and, come what may, took responsibility for the results.” When it came to intelligence operations, my friend continued, Olmert never played games. When faced with the need to decide whether to approve operations, other Israeli leaders would delay, maneuver, and scheme, aiming to take the credit for successes while escaping responsibility for failures.

“Gutsy and decisive leader of integrity” is not the first description that leaps to mind when Israelis hear the name Ehud Olmert, whose reputation will be forever marred by two notable failings. First, Olmert stepped down from office in 2008 while under official investigation on a variety of corruption charges. He was eventually found guilty of, among other things, taking bribes when he served as mayor of Jerusalem and later when he was trade minister. Second, he mishandled the 2006 Lebanon War. That conflict ended in a stalemate between Israel and Hezbollah and revealed major shortcomings both in the decision making of Israeli leaders and in key institutions, including the hallowed Israeli Defense Forces.

According to the Winograd Commission of Inquiry’s interim report, published in late April 2007, Olmert made military decisions “hastily” and without “systematic consultation with others.” He announced unachievable war aims, the report further stated, and when their unrealistic nature became clear, he failed to adjust his goals. After the publication of these findings, his approval rating plummeted to 3 percent. The interim report came out immediately after Meir Dagan’s April trip to Washington, and it haunted Olmert throughout the summer and fall. As he was making the fateful decisions that the al-Kibar question forced on him, public trust in his capacity for such decisions was essentially nil.

Smelling blood, his rivals began to circle. The greatest threat came from Ehud Barak, the defense minister and leader of the Labor Party, a coalition partner of Olmert’s Kadima Party. Throughout the al-Kibar deliberations, Barak repeatedly second-guessed Olmert, arguing for delays in operational decisions. Barak’s views carried special weight, because he was not just a former prime minister but also a former general, chief of the general staff, and one of the most decorated soldiers in the history of the Israeli military. Olmert, by contrast, ended up spending most of his short military service as a journalist writing for the armed forces magazine after an injury. Critics of his performance in the Lebanon War often noted that he lacked command and operational experience.

“Olmert,” Katz writes, “suspected that Barak was banking on the final Winograd Report on the Second Lebanon War—scheduled to be released later that year—to be so critical that it would force Olmert to resign.” Barak would then oversee the strike on Syria and use its success to propel himself back into the prime minister’s office.” Of course, Barak told Katz a different story. “Olmert was dead set on attacking and showed little interest in the details,” he said. “It was a pattern . . . Olmert had developed already during the Second Lebanon War.”

Unlike an American president, an Israeli prime minister cannot simply order an attack; he must persuade his key cabinet colleagues to follow his lead. In the contest with Ehud Barak, the tyranny of the clock worked to Olmert’s advantage. Almost everyone agreed that destroying the reactor before it went operational was a necessity. Over time, Barak’s calls for delay appeared increasingly self-serving, and Olmert’s considerable political skills did not desert him under pressure.

Little details in Katz’s account reveal what one might call Olmert’s emotional intelligence. His handling of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is a case in point. Gates arrived in Israel about a week before Dagan was due to fly to Washington to reveal the reactor to Bush. “Olmert,” Katz writes, “feared that Gates would hold a grudge . . . if he found out that [the Israelis] had intentionally kept him in the dark” during his visit. The prime minister, therefore, had Gates briefed about “the discovery of what might be a nuclear facility in Syria” but instructed the briefer not to make the reactor “the main focus of conversation.” Dagan, Gates was informed, “would soon be traveling to Washington to provide the White House and the CIA with more details.”

The choice to share more rather than less with the Americans was not without risk. By the time the Israelis attacked, approximately 2,000 people were in the know about al-Kibar. As time went on, the chances increased that the media would get wind of the story. If just one person had leaked, Assad would have received warning of Israel’s intentions—and a chance, in the words of CIA head Michael Hayden, to “turn [al-Kibar] into a day-care center, making a military operation virtually impossible.”

Another danger was political opposition. Keeping Bush and his team informed risked the possibility that they would work to thwart an attack. 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” both of the UN Charter and of 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 Bush had initially counseled Olmert not to attack, the red light that he had flashed quickly changed to amber; before long, it turned to solid green.

Bush’s political circumstances in 2007 are the key to understanding his behavior. When the Israelis first informed him of al-Kibar, he, like Olmert, was suffering from low approval ratings due to his perceived mishandling of a war. Bush’s critics castigated him for claiming that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had been hiding a nuclear weapons program. In addition to eroding public trust, this justification for the war also generated significant tension between Bush and the intelligence community. The CIA, especially, accused Bush of forcing it, for political reasons, to overstate its confidence that Saddam Hussein was indeed secretly developing a nuclear bomb. With the United States military bogged down in both Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush was reluctant to launch a preemptive strike on another Muslim country based, yet again, on intelligence reports about a clandestine weapons program.

And the CIA, with respect to al-Kibar, was in no rush to make Bush’s decision any easier. In mid-June, the president convened a crucial meeting of the so-called “Drafting Group,” a tight circle of aides he had tasked to advise him on al-Kibar. A key question before them was whether the United States could trust the Israeli assessment. On that score, Michael Hayden, the CIA director, presented four key findings: al-Kibar was indeed a nuclear reactor; the North Koreans built it; the Syrians had been cooperating with North Korea for about a decade; and it was a component in a nuclear weapons program. Hayden presented the first three findings with high confidence. However, on the fourth finding there was, Katz writes, “a major problem.”

 While the CIA believed that al-Kibar was part of a weapons program, neither it nor the Israelis could find the other elements of the program. Where, for example, was the team that would assemble a warhead? Without solid proof of a weaponization effort, Hayden had to express the fourth finding with “low confidence.” Everyone understood the gravity of those words. “The war in Iraq, and particularly the intelligence failure that got it started, hung over the people present in the room like a guillotine,” Katz writes. “No one wanted to be caught again approving a war based on intelligence that ultimately ended with a ‘low confidence’ assessment.”

No one, that is, except Dick Cheney. From that point forward, the vice president stood unwaveringly in favor of a military strike—by the United States or, as a second-best option, by Israel. Cheney was concerned that American inaction would erode the power of its deterrence. He wasn’t just thinking about Syria and Iran. In October 2006, when North Korea had conducted a nuclear test, Bush declared that, “The transfer of nuclear weapons or material by North Korea to states or non-state entities would be considered a grave threat to the United States, and we would hold North Korea fully accountable for the consequences of such action.” Backing up these words with action, the vice president believed, was imperative.

Cheney’s experience as secretary of defense in the first Bush administration had given him a great respect for Israeli intelligence. Prior to Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Israelis told him that Saddam Hussein had restarted his nuclear weapons program. “When [the IAEA] gained access to Iraq after the war,” Katz writes, “Cheney was not surprised to learn that Saddam had in fact restarted his nuclear program.” The Israelis had known more than the CIA. “Israel was at least equal if not better than we were in terms of [the Iraqi nuclear program],” Cheney would tell people.

He also realized that if Menachem Begin had not ordered the destruction of Iraq’s reactor in 1981, the United States would have confronted a far more formidable foe in 1991. After the war, Cheney sent a satellite photo of the bombed-out Osirak reactor to David Ivry, the Israeli commander who had orchestrated the attack. It was inscribed “With thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job you did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm!”

For Cheney, Israel was an asset to the United States. But Secretary of State Rice and Secretary of Defense Gates had a different take. Rice came away from the Second Lebanon War wary of Israeli capabilities and distrustful of Ehud Olmert’s judgements. As for Gates, he had long believed that the Israeli tail too often wagged the American dog. Both officials feared that military action, whether by the United States or Israel, risked harming American interests and endangering the lives of American soldiers. In addition, Katz writes, “they had doubts about entering another conflict based solely on intelligence . . . obtained by Israel.”

The split between his top advisors was laden with political significance for Bush. Cheney had been cast as the villain who strong-armed the intelligence community into accepting the erroneous assessment about Saddam’s clandestine development of weapons of mass destruction. Given the widespread belief in this view, how could Bush order an attack on al-Kibar with only the vice president supporting him? The CIA refused to confirm unequivocally that al-Kibar was part of a secret weapons program, and his other top officials adamantly opposed a military strike. Bush had little choice but to opt for a diplomatic strategy.

U. S. president George W. Bush with Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in Israel, January 9, 2008. (Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.)

As events unfolded, however, Bush’s reactions indicate that, instinctively, he was closer to Cheney’s position than his formal decision making suggested. When Olmert, in the July telephone conversation, bluntly rejected Bush’s preferred diplomatic strategy, Bush backed off. “We will not get in your way,” he had told Olmert.

The next day, Bush met with his advisors to brief them on the situation. Gates, Katz reports, was livid. “Olmert, he told Bush, had asked America for help, but was unwilling to accept anything as an answer if it wasn’t a US attack on Syria. America, he said, was being held hostage by Israel.” Unconvinced, Bush praised the “steadfastness” of Olmert and instructed his team to do nothing “that would preempt Israel.” This order had practical consequences. It meant, among other things, that intelligence cooperation with the Israelis continued uninterrupted even as they planned and conducted the strike. The amber light was turning green.

On September 6, immediately after the Israeli planes destroyed al-Kibar, Olmert called Bush, who was on a state visit to Australia, a circumstance which forced the two to speak cryptically. “By the way, Mr. President,” Olmert said, “remember there was something in the north that we didn’t like?”

“I just wanted you to know that it doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Oh, that is very interesting. Do you expect any response or have a feeling about a possible response?”
“No. For the time being, it seems that all indications are that there will be no response.”

The conversation, Olmert thought, was over. What came next shocked him. “Okay,” Bush said. “I just want you to know that if there will be a response, you can count on all of America being behind you.”

“Olmert shook with emotion,” Katz writes. “It was a statement he would never forget, one that gave him confidence and assurance that he had made the right decision.”

Rolling the dice of war is the loneliest decision of any leader, but for an Israeli, rolling them without superpower support is especially harrowing. Every Israeli leader knows Ben-Gurion’s dictum: Never go to war without great power support. It is easy for Israel to start a war alone, but nearly impossible to bring the conflict to an end on favorable political terms without help from a powerful backer in the international arena.

Israelis tell a story about what happened, in 1967, when Ben-Gurion schooled then–chief of staff General Yitzhak Rabin on the necessity of great power support. President Lyndon Johnson, preoccupied with the Vietnam War, had refused to take any significant action against Nasser in the lead-up to the Six-Day War. “You won’t have to go it alone, unless you go it alone,” he famously told the Israelis. In other words, the United States would not stop Israel from attacking, but it would not support the war. If things went wrong, the Israelis were on their own. During the tense waiting period between the Egyptian remilitarization of the Sinai and the Israeli decision to attack, Rabin visited Ben-Gurion, who was living in retirement at his home in Sde Boker in the Negev. Ben-Gurion, so the story goes, castigated Rabin for preparing to launch a war without American backing. Following the dressing down from Ben-Gurion, he suffered a nervous breakdown that incapacitated him for two weeks.

Bush probably never heard this story, but his own experience had taught him the loneliness of ordering men and women into harm’s way. He offered Olmert the emotional and political support needed to face any adversity that lurked ahead. Among American presidents, Bush surely ranks as one of the most supportive of the Jewish State. Nevertheless, his administration still harbored very serious doubts about the Israelis’ chosen course of action. The al-Kibar episode thus reminds us, among other things, that algorithms do not determine how best to secure national interests, people do.

Although the bet that Olmert placed on Bush 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, had been working for years to keep this fact at the forefront of the Israeli thinking. Major General Eliezer Shkedi, the commander of the Israeli Air Force, 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 the 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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