Few understood the importance of the fight for Deir ez-Zor, Syria, as well as former Israeli prime minster Ehud Olmert. Located on the banks of the Euphrates River, the city was rather inconsequential, merely a fragment in the larger civil war devastating Syria.
Despite the corruption charges dogging Olmert, news of the town’s takeover by the Islamic State (ISIS) in July 2014 offered the now-disgraced politician a rare respite, quiet vindication. Reading about the developments, Olmert was overcome by a sense of relief.
“It was validation of a decision he had made seven years earlier, one that if not taken would have transformed the world and made it an even scarier place,” writes Yaakov Katz. The reason, as Katz brilliantly retells in his latest book, Shadow Strike, is because Deir ez-Zor was the site of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s secret nuclear program. But for Olmert’s decision to destroy the reactor, ISIS may very well have possessed nuclear weapons.
Condensed into about 300 pages, Shadow Strike is thematically organized, jumping between Israeli intelligence operations, shuttle diplomacy with the Americans and the Israeli air force’s operational planning. Sprinkled within these broader political and military narratives are biographical sketchings of the story’s major figures – Olmert, Assad and George W. Bush – as well as a sizable cast of American and Israeli intelligence figures, including Meir Dagan, Gadi Ashkenazi, Robert Gates, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Eliot Cohen.
Uniquely, Shadow Strike begins by looking at modern times, rather than the past, to frame and contextualize Israel’s 2007 strike on the Syrian reactor. In the shadow of the Syrian Civil War, Assad’s use of chemical weapons and Deir ez-Zor’s seizure by ISIS, Katz summons powerful imagery provoking readers to consider what might have happened had Olmert failed to act.
“Israel’s story, Olmert thought at the time, could have been different,” writes Katz. “As he looked out the window, he imagined what would have happened had he listened to those who had urged him not to act.”
Few scholarly books begin with a meditation on alternative history, though Katz’s hypothetical is deeply compelling.
Shadow Strike’s prodding introduction is complemented by Katz’s extensive research of the tense bilateral discussions Israel and the United States held throughout the ordeal. From the American perspective, the discovery of the Syrian reactor known as al-Kibar came at the wrong end of a bad decade. Faulty intelligence had ensnared Bush in Iraq. The 9/11 terrorist attacks and resulting war in Afghanistan had eroded confidence in America’s ability to stabilize a region wracked by sectarianism. Accordingly, many within the Bush White House cautioned patience, advocating diplomatic alternatives.
But, as Katz demonstrates, the Israelis knew better. Seeking to dispel Bush’s equivocations, Olmert leveraged their close relationship, drawing on history and America’s use of nuclear weapons during the Second World War to dismantle the charges that the reactor was not a pressing matter. Many American officials insisted that Syria still needed advanced missile systems before the situation became untenable.
Olmert sketched a scenario for Bush in which dozens of Syrian fighter jets, armed with nuclear weapons, attacked Israel. Perhaps Israel could neutralize most, but certainly not all. Only one needed to penetrate Israeli airspace to endanger the nation’s survival.
“When their planes take off, they are above Israel within one minute,” Olmert told Bush. “They don’t need to have a missile.”
As Katz reports, the appeal struck a chord. “Have at it,” Bush said, wrapping up the conversation. “We will not get in your way.”
Despite the inclinations of Gates and Rice to dismiss Israeli pleas as simple histrionics, Katz crucially frames Olmert’s approach through the prism of Israel’s nuclear deterrence policy, known as the Begin Doctrine. The principle is derived from Menachem Begin’s decision to destroy an Iraqi reactor known as Osirak in 1981 following revelations that Saddam Hussein had covertly embarked on the nuclear pathway. Notwithstanding the resulting widespread condemnation (even from the United States), Begin remained unapologetic. “We chose this moment: now, not later,” Begin proclaimed at a press conference afterwards. “Never again, never again! Tell so your friends, tell anyone you meet, we shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal. We shall not allow any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction turned against us.”
Beyond the opportunity of exploring the Begin Doctrine, Osirak provided Katz a valuable counterpoint, drawing out crucial distinctions between it and al-Kibar. The most important, as Katz argues, is the primary overriding consideration of geography. “A war was not a real scenario considering that the countries – Iraq and Israel – do not share a border,” Katz concludes. By comparison, Israel and Syria had repeatedly clashed in full-scale conflict and shared contested borders.
While Katz’s portrayal of Israeli strategizing, as well as American deliberations, provide valuable insights into the realm of statecraft, high politics and policymaking, Shadow Strike is surprisingly brief in covering the mission itself. A generous reading of the step-by-step developments of the military operation numbers only two pages.
Nonetheless, Shadow Strike is a valuable contribution in a saturated field of Israeli military history. Apart from the brevity of the military operation, itself, Katz has done a wonderful job illuminating the end-to-end process of such a strike, beginning with espionage and gathering intelligence, through multilateral consultations, internal policy discussions, and ultimately the post-op reflection.
In a world where alternative histories are often tantalizing, Shadow Strike is a reminder that, at crucial junctures, a politician’s instinct can change the arc of history.