By Barak Ravid and Amos Harel
Israel and the United States are coordinating the release of details on the air force strike in Syria last September, which foreign reports claim targeted a nuclear installation Syria was constructing with North Korean assistance. American officials may reveal details of the strike later this month during congressional hearings.
Even though the defense establishment in Israel is opposed to any publication of details of the attack, the Prime Minister’s Bureau and U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration are of the opinion that it is now possible to reveal details because there is little chance of a conflagration as a result of a Syrian decision to avenge the attack.
Details of the attack are likely to be revealed by senior Bush administration officials during hearings before Congress. Advisers to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Yoram Turbowicz and Shalom Turjeman, discussed the issue last week in Washington with senior U.S. intelligence officials, and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley.
During the meetings, the two sides agreed on which details of the attack to make public and which details could have negative implications. According to foreign reports, Israel transfered to the U.S. detailed intelligence on the installation attacked, and the two sides agreed not to reveal any details without prior coordination.
The view in Washington and in Jerusalem is that publishing details of the attack will bolster Israel’s deterrence and may even lead Syria to cool its close ties with Iran and North Korea.
According to the American assessments, the revelations about the attack will also bolster its hand in negotiations with North Korea on dismantling its nuclear arms.
However, the Israel defense establishment is strongly opposed to revealing any details of the attack in Syria and expressed concern that any airing of the details of the attack will result in lifting the strict censorship that was imposed in Israel on this incident.
Senior figures in the defense establishment and the Israel Defense Forces said in recent day that Israel must convince the Americans to deliver the report to Congress “in closed session.”
Intelligence analysts in Israel maintain that any further release of the details on the strike will contribute to the already tense situation between Syria and Israel, which has been exacerbated in part because of Hezbollah’s plans to avenge the assassination of the group’s terrorist mastermind, Imad Mughniyah.
Any official release of the details of the attack and the nature of the installation may push Syria’s Bashar Assad into a corner and put pressure him to respond, say intelligence officials.
The possibility of details being made public has also contributed to the mutual suspicions between the PMO and the Defense Minister’s Bureau. In political circles it is now commonly accepted that the release of details of the attack may help bolster the public image of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Some politicians have offered assessments that Olmert may decide to lift the curtain on details of the attack close to the 60th anniversary of Israel’s independence, in early May.
Other political sources say that the American revelations on this matter will not result in a change in Israel’s censorship policy, and insist that Olmert will not discuss the subject of the attack during holiday interviews.
The hearings at the House Intelligence Committee may be held in the coming weeks. Congressmen have included in the bill on the intelligence budget that American intelligence agencies will not be given large portions of their budget unless they reveal in full the details of the strike in Syria and the nuclear cooperation between Pyongyang and Damascus.
This has led U.S. and Israeli officials to conclude that American officials will release details of the strike during the hearings.
Talks between the U.S. and North Korea are schedule to resume tomorrow in Singapore. One of the American conditions for lifting the sanctions on Pyongyang is for it to expose its nuclear collaboration with other countries, which North Korea maintains does not exist. According to South Korean media sources, Pyongyang has agreed to provide the U.S. with information on its nuclear cooperation with Syria, on condition that Washington will not make this public. The same sources stated that the U.S. has given North Korea a list of engineers that are suspected of involvement in the construction of the installation that was targeted in Syria.
Meanwhile, readiness levels are high at Northern Command and in security for Israeli missions abroad, as well as at airlines, as concerns remain that Hezbollah will try to avenge the assassination of its terrorist mastermind, Imad Mughniyah in February.
The statement by Defense Minister Ehud Barak last week, that Israel would retaliate with a heavy hand against any attack, was made following deliberations with intelligence officials. There are concerns that an order to carry out a terrorist attack has already been issued – and Barak’s tough words were meant to signal Hezbollah and its patrons, Syria and Iran, that Israel will respond to any attack.