Israel Update for October 2007

David Dolan
David Dolan

Reverberations from Israel 's September air strike against a Syrian nuclear facility continued to rocket around the tumultuous Middle East during October, with Israeli armed forces on full alert in case Damascus orders a delayed military response. Meanwhile a partial lifting of media censorship finally allowed the publication in Israel of the fact that a daring operation had indeed been carried out, which analysts say has at least partially restored Israel 's deterrence credibility - severely eroded during the 2006 inconclusive conflict with Lebanese Hizbullah militia forces.

While Israeli leaders kept one eye glued on the tense northern border, American diplomatic efforts to resolve the long and bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued apace. Negotiations reached a serious snag when the Palestinians demanded that Israel agree to iron out full details of a final status peace accord before a planned international conference is held later this year outside Washington D.C.

Fresh revelations of just how far Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears to be willing to go in order to sign a final treaty with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas rocked the Israeli political establishment during the month. Several members of Olmert's own Kadima party again threatened to bolt his coalition if the unpopular Premier actually agrees to abandon portions of Jerusalem to Palestinian control, as media reports indicated he is now fully prepared to do.

Nuclear Syria

Senior Bush administration officials confirmed widespread media reports that Israeli jets had bombed and apparently destroyed a Syrian nuclear-linked target in the country's eastern desert in the early hours of September 6.

The Washington Post was among several newspapers that quoted unnamed White House and Defense Department officials saying the target was no less than a nuclear reactor under construction there. The American ABC network reported that a mole operating in the area had taken secret detailed photographs of the inside of the targeted building site, confirming that it was a reactor being constructed along the lines necessary to provide enough material to eventually produce a nuclear bomb.

A Syrian official stationed at United Nations headquarters in New York later confirmed for the first time that the target was indeed some sort of nuclear facility under construction. Earlier, Syrian leaders, including Dictator Bashar Assad, had claimed that the targeted structure was either an agricultural building or an abandoned army base. Speaking before the UN's Disarmament Commission, the Syrian diplomat termed the daring Israeli operation "an act of aggression."

The Post report said that U.S. leaders had known about the construction activity for some time, but had not shared that information immediately with their Israeli counterparts. It added that the Damascus-based Assad regime is seemingly now scrambling to erase all evidence on the ground that a nuclear reactor was being built in the dry eastern desert, not far from the border with Iraq.

American officials quoted in the report said the intensive efforts to clean up the site are probably designed to make it impossible for international inspectors to confirm that an atomic reactor was actually under construction, and whether or not it was being built with nuclear weapons ultimately in mind. The report said air surveillance pictures taken by American and Israeli spy satellites and jets had revealed that the site was probably a small but significant nuclear reactor.

Experts said the reactor had similar features to several others located in North Korea. They added that the isolated Communist regime had probably sold architectural plans for the nuclear facility to Syria, with North Korean engineers overseeing the actual construction process, as several international media outlets reported in September. Some reports said North Korean experts were killed in the dramatic air strike. Other reports claimed that Russian weapons advisors had been killed when Israeli Air Force pilots also bombed recently delivered Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries that were locking onto their jets.

Warning To Iran?

American officials told the Washington Post that the White House had agreed with Israeli leaders that urgent military action was called for to halt the nuclear construction process. The State Department's reported contention that the issue should first be raised with the United Nation's International Atomic Energy Agency before an air operation was launched was overruled by the White House, which was said to concur with Israeli officials that such a move would only give diplomatic cover for the Syrian regime to continue rapid construction activity, as limited UN sanctions have apparently done for Iran.

As before, Israeli officials refused to confirm or deny the American news reports, even though strict military censorship upon the Israeli media and foreign journalists stationed in the country was partially lifted in late September. That at least permitted full publication for the first time of the widely known fact that a major air operation had been successfully carried out by highly trained Israeli Air Force pilots earlier in the month.
Israeli officials again indicated that the censorship restrictions were basically enacted in order to lessen the chances that humiliated Syrian leaders would order a retribution military operation, if not launch an all-out war.

Pointing out that the Syrians are already known to possess a small nuclear reactor for supposedly research purposes only, the Post article said Israeli and American officials believed that the bombed facility was more clearly designed to produce weapon's grade material. It added that U.S. government leaders remain divided as to whether or not the reactor posed an imminent threat to Israel, or to American forces stationed in the region.