Israeli journalist Yaakov Katz provides a detailed account of the events leading up to and consequences of the Israeli air attack on a building in the Syrian desert in September 2007. Subject to many years of speculation, the secret attack — which neither Syria nor Israel acknowledged at the time — was finally identified by Israel in March 2018 as a successful operation to eliminate what Israel claimed to be a nuclear weapons facility. The facility, known as “al-Kibar,” was in northeastern Syria near the Iraq-Syrian border, and was constructed by North Korea (perhaps with financing from Iran) replicating a North Korean nuclear weapons plant, according to Israeli intelligence analysts. In the aftermath of the Second Lebanese War and the upsurge of Hamas and Hezbollah, the presence of a suspected nuclear weapons production facility so close to home was a profound existential threat for Israel. The attack was a major gamble; Syria could have retaliated with devastating missile attacks on Israel but they chose not to, as Israel hoped they would if they did not trumpet the attack.
Katz’s is not the first account of the event. Within days, there was speculation about what happened. As the years passed, additional material came to light, including memoir accounts by George W. Bush and members of his administration who had a supporting role in the unfolding of the event. By the time Israel acknowledged the attack, the main outlines had been established and in the public domain for nearly a decade, although many details remained unclear. Katz provides detailed reporting based on interviews with many of the principal decision-makers in Israel and the U.S. He also places the event within the context of Israel’s on-going campaign against terrorist and other military threats, especially Iranian nuclear capability. On the American side of the picture, the debacle of the Iraq War and skittishness over the failure of American intelligence estimates leading up to it played major roles in Former President Bush and his administration’s decision to refuse to carry out the bombing that Israel urged, while also not impeding the Israeli decision to launch the operation on its own.
Katz’s narrative moves along with the pace and snap of a spy thriller, although the reader less familiar with Israel’s military history might get a bit lost in the chronology and identities of the myriad Israeli intelligence officials participating in the operation. The main actors in the drama — Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Former President Bush, and Former Vice President Cheney — sometimes sound like movie characters as Katz’s writing periodically descends to cliché. But readers will get an inside look at how momentous decisions are made and executed and what political and ideological factors play into the final outcome. While Katz accepts the testimony of the principal participants at face value, there has been some skeptical reporting that the facility was not what Israel claimed and that Israel was manipulating the U.S. to take out more conventional weapons that Syria was supplying to Hezbollah, all while warning Iran about its nuclear ambitions. Ultimately, Katz judges that the Israel intelligence was right about the facility and Olmert was justified in his decision to take action and thereby remove the existential threat of a nuclear-capable neighbor. Iran’s continued nuclear project and the ongoing dance of the U.S. and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear weapons provide an additional dimension of seriousness to Katz’s account. The world still remains a dangerous and scary place, not only for Israel.