Judging Israel's Alleged Strike in Syria

JERUSALEM -- It's an Entebbe moment, or at least an Entebbe remake, expected to conjure up a warm memory of the original euphoria inspired by Israel's legendary 1976 rescue of hostages in Uganda. The Israeli air force and commandos have struck, ridiculously far from home, dealing a blow precisely where it was needed, so that in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem we know that our boys are still the most daring ones around, and so that the bad guys know we can still get them whenever we want, right through their back window. Ergo, we are safer. True, we don't know exactly why the blow was needed at that place, somewhere on the northern edge of Syria. The bad guys are angry, they say they will strike back, but are so embarrassed about what we allegedly hit they won't say what it was.

Our Cabinet, which normally leaks like a water tank used for machine-gun target practice, is saying nothing. The little lopsided enigmatic smile perennially worn by Defense Minister Ehud Barak may be a bit larger than usual. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, whose speeches are standardly described as "self-satisfied," has not told us that he has restored Israeli deterrence. But the head of military intelligence did say that in a Knesset committee, without mentioning just how. Only opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, known for loose lips in more than one meaning of the term, has publicly confirmed that Israel in fact carried out the raid.

A poll in the daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper this week recorded that 35 percent of the public rates Olmert's job performance as "good" -- which looks abysmal, except that's up 10 percent from two weeks ago, just before Syria announced that Israeli planes had violated its airspace. The pollsters said to respondents that "according to foreign reports, Israel attacked nuclear targets in Syria. Do you support or oppose this operation?" Seventy-eight percent said they supported it.

"Foreign reports" is a critical term. Mostly that means American media reports, generally citing American officials and experts. Some of those off-the-record sources in turn cite Israeli officials. Alas, when passing out murky information, spooks do not provide their names or say what agency they work for. (I'll come back to this problem shortly.) An initial CNN story said that the attack "may have" involved ground troops, implying commandoes operating very deep in enemy territory to guide the planes to a target that "may have" been arms intended for Hezbollah. Later came the New York Times and Washington Post reports that Israeli and American intelligence had evidence that Syria was getting North Korean help toward producing nuclear weapons, followed by the Times story that, yes, Israel bombed what it believed to be a "nuclear-related facility that North Korea was helping to equip."

If so, the dots satisfyingly connect. This is more than an Entebbe moment; it's an Osirak moment, parallel to the Israeli raid against Iraq's nuclear facility in 1981. Inside Israel, as I remember, the most cogent criticism of that operation was that Israel took responsibility instead of letting suspicion rest on Iran, which was then at war with Iraq. With elections a few weeks away, it looked like Prime Minister Menachem Begin had exploited the attack to win a close race.

This time around, Israel's leaders are mum. Euphoria, or at least satisfaction, would seem in order. Why do I feel like the bow-tied prof at the rock concert, the nerd at the soccer match, watching the joy from the outside?

There's the detail that Syria might just hit back, using proxies such as Hezbollah or Hamas, as it has before. If Israel has just prevented Syria from getting the bomb -- without, let's note, engaging in regime change or occupying the country -- one could make a cold argument for accepting that risk. As with the raid on Osirak, though, there's the question of whether attacking a Syrian nuclear facility might only teach the other side to work more quickly, and deeper underground. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad really wants nukes, it's hard to believe that he'd drop his plans after one punch. If, indeed, this is about nukes.

For what really bothers me is that to feel positive about whatever happened in northern Syria early this month, I'd have to trust Israel's elected leadership, unnamed American intelligence experts, and the U.S. media as it reports on weapons of mass destruction. This year, I'm not feeling terribly trusting.

Last summer, Ehud Olmert became George W. Bush's rival in unpopularity among his voters by launching an ill-considered war in Lebanon. As Olmert awaits the results of the inquiry commission looking into that mistake, might he gamble again to show that he is a capable leader? Well, yes, it's possible. Barak was not defense minister last year, but is eager to show that he is more capable than the man who was, Amir Peretz. Barak is also the former commander of the General Staff's elite commando unit. When he approved whatever he approved, was he thinking as the commando officer or as the defense minister? There's no reason to answer that question quickly.

When it comes to U.S. intelligence experts talking about weapons of mass destruction and Syria, I become more seriously agnostic. It's certainly conceivable that Assad wants nuclear weapons, and would get help from North Korea. The news from Lebanon does not make one want to trust him. Unfortunately, it's also conceivable that someone in Washington could bend evidence, or interpret it to fit the Bush administration's expectations of Syria -- or that a hawkish faction in the administration could be interested in sabotaging the negotiations with North Korea. Historically, U.S. and Israeli intelligence have shared evaluations, including badly mistaken ones. Under Bush, it's Washington that has taken the hard line on Syria, demanding that Israel follow suit. Just because Bush's people got everything wrong about Iraq does not mean that they must always be wrong. But that argument does not inspire confidence.

And as the Iraq story teaches, reporters can easily treat leaks as scoops. Creating the myth of Saddam's WMDs, the administration got much assistance from well-meaning journalists. In the realm of national security, the fourth estate is at its weakest. Governments have an almost unavoidable monopoly on most information. They own the spy satellites. The Government Accountability Office or think-tank experts can give an alternative estimate of the cost of a health program but cannot run operatives overseas. The tendency of intelligence officials to speak anonymously makes matters worse.

Military policy is the extreme case for representative democracy. Some information must be secret, which handicaps public debate. We elect leaders hoping they will act responsibly. In both Israel and America, the current leaders have not done much for that hope. The media, short on hard information, must be particularly careful to raise questions and analyze motives.

Really, I'd like an Entebbe moment. I'd like to believe that the planes turning from the Mediterranean across Syria made me safer. For now, I am passing on euphoria.

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