Yaakov Katz (David Rawlings)

‘SHADOW STRIKE, Israel’s Secret Mission to Destroy a Syrian Nuclear Facility’ (VIDEO report)

Yaakov Katz shares the adventure and suspense of his book in an exclusive interview

A new book by Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, details Israel’s secret mission to deny Syria the nuclear capabilities that would have been an existential threat to the Jewish state.

SHADOW STRIKE reveals the courage and determination of former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert in the planning, execution and containment of the covert operation to destroy the secret nuclear facility being built by North Korea in the Syrian desert.

Katz also discusses the recent Olmert/Abbas meeting in Washington to dismiss the Trump Administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” plan for Israel and the Palestinians. (A transcript of the interview appears below.)

 

[Jerusalem] While virtually any Middle East watcher can identify “Osirak” as the Iraqi nuclear site Israel destroyed in a daring raid in 1981, it’s an equal bet that when asked about “Deir ez-Zour,” the response is a blank look and a possible head-scratch. Few know it as the venue for Israel’s more recent (2007) but equally audacious mission to prevent Syria from building a nuclear reactor.

During the post-Second Lebanon War period, author Yaakov Katz was covering the region as the Jerusalem Post’s military correspondent. In an exclusive interview with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson, Katz reveals a tale of adventure and intrigue that makes his book, Shadow Strike, a first-class thriller.

TML: The literary genre of the international thriller often winds its way through the Middle East, and for good reason. By way of example and Shadow Strike, Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz tells the actual story of Israel’s secret operation to deny nuclear capabilities to Syria, a life-or-death mission as riveting as any told by Jack Carr or Brad Thor. But it’s true.

Yaakov Katz, thanks for joining us in studio at The Media Line. Before we go into the intrigues, setting the scene for the Syrian reactor, what was being built? How dangerous to Israel was it? And how difficult was the decision to do what Israel did?

Yaakov Katz: Basically, in the summer of 2006, we all know – and this is important for context – Israel fought a war against Hizbullah for 34 days, and it was perceived very much in Israel as being a very bad war. A war that ended with poor results, with too many casualties, with too many rockets that pounded the Israeli home front. For those 34 days of war, over 4,000 rockets hit Israel. And Israel was in this process of rehabilitation. It was learning and studying the lessons. There were commissions of inquiry on a state level and on a military level, but across the board it was exhaustive. There were calls for the prime minister to step down at the time, Ehud Olmert, and for the chief of staff to leave office. For the defense minister to also resign. And at the same time, in March of 2007 – there were just seven months after that war – in the midst of this rehabilitation, the Mossad, Israel’s equivalent of the CIA, gets intelligence about a Syrian nuclear scientist who is going to be travelling to Vienna. And this is a guy who the Mossad, over the years, had frequently followed and tracked, and occasionally picked his suitcase or hotel room, but never came up with anything too significant. And Israel knew that Syria had this small, little, low-level nuclear program. They [the Syrians] had purchased a nuclear reactor from the Chinese in the 1990s that had a staff of maybe a dozen people. Nothing too significant that would pose a threat to the State of Israel. They break into this guy’s hotel room and he had left his laptop computer behind, and they download the contents of his laptop computer and they hit the jackpot. On this computer they find photos of a nuclear reactor being built in northeastern Syria along the Euphrates River. And the kicker of it all was this one photo of that Syrian scientist standing and posing for a photo in front of the nuclear reactor together with the man who turned out to be the North Korean nuclear scientist who runs North Korea’s Pyongyang nuclear reactor. So not only is Syria building a nuclear reactor that could pose an existential threat to the State of Israel, and is close to completing it, but this is being done for Syria by another dangerous, rogue, violent regime – the one in Pyongyang.

TML: And it’s always that single mistake, that photo really, that did them in.

Yaakov Katz: Leaving his laptop computer is what did him in. No one knew about it.  The Americans didn’t know about it and Israel didn’t know about it. And that’s what basically…. It was pure luck, on the one hand, but also very determined intelligence-gathering capabilities.

These photos, provided by the Israeli military, are an aerial view of the Syrian nuclear reactor after bombardment in 2007. (AFP via Getty Images)

 

TML:  Former prime minister Ehud Olmert is the key figure in your book, having led the nation in the 2006 Lebanon War against Hizbullah and having come out battered and maligned for his efforts. You write that Olmert didn’t know at the time that he would be denied the credit that would show him as a decisive leader who stood up to the US and took action to save the Jewish people. Why?

Yaakov Katz: Well, it’s a good question, but it also hits at the nature of what they were trying to do because Israel believed, because of the nature of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president had not told anyone about this nuclear reactor but just a handful of people – his defense minister didn’t know, [and] his chief of staff didn’t know. None of his cabinet really knew; just a handful of selective, shadowy, secret characters who surrounded him knew about what was really happening up in this Deir ez-Zour region. And Israel gambled that if it stays quiet, Assad would prefer to sweep it under the rug and not retaliate. And they weren’t sure how it would play out. There were predictions in the military that an assault and the destruction of this nuclear reactor could lead to a war with Syria, at least [a] 50% [chance]. And this is Syria pre-civil war, Felice. This is Syria with more tanks than we have soldiers [to deter them] or scud missiles that can reach any point inside the State of Israel [with] chemical and biological weapons in the tons. This would have been a formidable opponent for the State of Israel. But Israel decided that if it remains quiet, Assad will stay quiet. And that required of Olmert also to remain silent. Never to take credit. Never to say a word. Never to say, “Look what I did on your behalf, how I saved the nation. Look how I stood up to everyone.”

Ehud Olmert (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

 

TML: It doesn’t stay that way, does it?

Yaakov Katz: So I think that it’s interesting when you, like you said, the leaders that we have around the world today just, you know, 12-13 years later, and without naming names, you look at this…. We live in an era of populism today. You look at the populist leaders. I wonder often, would they have been able to stay quiet? And considering the fact that Olmert eventually gets indicted, steps down from his role as prime minister, gets convicted, gets sentenced to jail, goes to jail, [then] leaves jail – but at no point along the way did he slam his hand on the table and say, “Do you know what I did for you? And you’re sending me to jail! You’re indicting me! You’re convicting me! You’re sentencing me!”

TML: How will that go down in history?

Yaakov Katz: I think in my view [that] this was a heroic moment in that sense. It was one thing to stand up to the US president, who didn’t want him to attack. That was impressive. I don’t know that other leaders would do that. It was another thing to be able to withstand the pressure and still go ahead, but then this remaining silence, while it seems so small, I think when you think of the politicians and you compare today to [back] then, it’s interesting and I think it’s something that should give us pause.

TML: A number of now famous missions to prevent revenge terror – one being the locating and killing of Hizbullah Operations Chief Imad Mughniyeh, the mastermind behind the most heinous Hizbullah attacks, wanted both by the United States and Israel. How did he play into the story? 

Yaakov Katz: Imad Mughniyeh was not directly connected to the construction of the nuclear reactor but he was the head of the Hizbullah military forces and he was really a fierce opponent for Israel as well as the United States. He was responsible for the [US] Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 that killed hundreds of Americans. He was the man who oversaw the kidnapping attack on July 12, 2006, during which Hizbullah grabbed the bodies of two IDF reservists and sparked this month-long war. So he was behind the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 and the Jewish Community Center in that same city two years later. Israel had been after him for years. He was finally killed in a car bombing in Damascus in February 2008, but why it’s connected to this story is because Israel discovers this intelligence in Vienna, Austria, in the computer of this Syrian nuclear scientist, and shares it with the Americans. And the CIA is blown away by how Israel got this. This operation opens up new channels of communication; new relations between the CIA and the Mossad. The CIA gains this new-found respect for the Mossad, and that enables more joint operations. And it’s been reported that the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh was a joint Israeli-CIA operation.

A billboard with the likeness of Hizbullah commander Imad Mughniyeh is shown in Beirut in September 2008, seven months after his death. (Ramzi Haidar/AFP via Getty Images)

 

TML: Was that a turning point in terms of the United States and Israel cooperating on that level? 

Yaakov Katz: I think what happened with the al-Kibar nuclear reactor in Syria definitely was a turning point. They come after years of the CIA feeling the Mossad had lost its gravitas; it had lost its magic touch, its dagger-between-the-teeth type of legendary operations [and] that it was not doing those anymore. And this brought them back to the forefront. And I spoke for the book with the head of the CIA at the time, Gen. Michael Hayden, who very much expressed that sentiment, that this was a game changer in those relations and really pushed it to the next level.

TML: Targeted assassination is a strategic weapon that we’ve seen over the past several months, and it’s very much active – not only for Israel, but for the United States as well. Having spoken with many of those who have been decision-makers for the use of targeted killings, are they worth the price and backlash and diplomacy?

The Media Line’s Felice Friedson speaks with author Yaakov Katz. (David Rawlings)  

 

Yaakov Katz: That’s a really good question. It works to an extent, right? So when Israel took out Imad Mughniyeh in 2008, it took Hizbullah time to rebuild itself to fill that vacuum. But we know that everyone is replaceable. The targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani by the United States just a couple of months ago is just another example [of how] Qasem Soleimani  was a key architect of everything that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al Quds Force is trying still to do in the region – build up a presence in Syria; smuggle arms to Hizbullah and Lebanon, to Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza; fight the war in Yemen; and on and on. Removing him from the field has an impact, but these people are replaced, so it can hinder, it can set them back. Some of these people do have their center of excellence in their terrorist activities, so removing them does hurt them. It does create a deterrent and I do think that this is also important when Israel, for example, in November [2019], dropped a bomb through a window onto a bed and killed the top Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza – Abu al-Ata – that showed other Hamas and Islamic Jihad commanders that no one is invincible. No one has immunity. The same thing with Qasem Soleimani. He was roaming the region, feeling like no one could touch him, and he was taken out just a few minutes after landing in Baghdad airport. So other people know this – and there is another reason, for example, [that] Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah still today, 14 years after the Second Lebanon War, does not come out into the open. He lives in a bunker because he knows that the same thing could potentially happen to him.

TML: We’ve just discussed Ehud Olmert as a leader being denied his most important action before the public. He has now returned to the public eye, sharing the podium with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as a critic of the Trump-Kushner vision for peace. Any thoughts?

Yaakov Katz: First and foremost, the Palestinians are continuing with this path of intransigence and they’re not interested in really moving forward. The proof is what Abbas said at that meeting, [which] was that we have to go back to those agreements that you [Olmert] and I had when we negotiated 12 years ago, and I’m ready to start from the point that we ended. Well seriously! Where were you for 12 years? Right? And the Palestinians sadly keep on proving to us that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, to borrow the famous line of the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban. But with that said, also, I think that Olmert, despite having a really heroic moment in the book Shadow Strike and the story of the nuclear reactor, he is still perceived by the Israeli public to have been a corrupt politician, to have gone to jail, to have brought disgrace to the office [of prime minister] and to the nation. And therefore, to go and meet with Abbas is just to bring upon himself more criticism and more unpopularity. And I’m not sure why he would necessarily want that. On the other hand, I think that this double standard that I see in the Israeli political arena troubles me more. So what that Olmert met with Abbas? Right? The people saying that he’s meeting with the terrorist, and I’ve seen that throughout social media…

TML: There was a lot of change.

Yaakov Katz: There was a lot of change. Prime Minister [Binyamin] Netanyahu was hugging and embracing [PLO leader] Yasser Arafat back when he was prime minister between ’96 and ’99. He was the one who voted for the disengagement for Gaza in 2005. He was the one who signed the Hebron agreement that allowed the Palestinian police to deploy inside the city of Hebron. He was the one who froze settlement construction back in 2009 to 2010. How come no one is calling him out on that? So that double standard…

TML: So why? The real question here is why does the public just turn a blind eye?

Yaakov Katz: Well, I think there is an attempt to rewrite history. I think there is an attempt on the Right by supporters of Netanyahu to pretend that all that didn’t happen, but it did happen. And that’s fine. In other words, I think that Mahmoud Abbas, in this case also, we have to keep in mind [that] he is a Palestinian leader. He might not come to the table. He might be a rejectionist, but he still is one who denounces terror. He is one who calls on his security forces to continue to coordinate with the Israeli military, which helps save Israeli lives as well as Palestinian lives, and keeps Hamas at bay and prevents it from popping up in the West Bank at a time that there is no diplomatic progress on any level. So is that not the type of leader that we should be trying to engage with and make peace with? Now, on the other hand, Yasser Arafat we know orchestrated the Second Intifada. [He] personally and proudly funded and financed and supported and gave logistic support to suicide attacks against the State of Israel, murdered hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews. So that’s someone…. This double standard is, in my eyes, hypocritical and unacceptable, and we need to call that out, so whether Olmert was right to meet [with] him or he was wrong to meet [with] him, stop this vile attempt to divide and rewrite history. That is something that is just unacceptable.

TML: Yaakov, the Trump-Kushner vision for “peace and prosperity.” In one word, how would you describe it?

Yaakov Katz: I think it’s impressive.

TML: One word.

Yaakov Katz: Impressive.

TML: Okay. Do you think that it has a chance? 

Yaakov Katz: I’m a sceptic. I’m not sure it has much of a chance. And it’s possible that we’ll sit here a year from now and we’ll try to recall what was that deal that someone once put on the table, because it is taking into account the possibility that Trump loses in November and Netanyahu doesn’t win in the upcoming election or in the election that might come after that. And then no one is there to move it forward. I was speaking with other people, and no one remembered the Kerry talks [led by then-US secretary of state John Kerry]. It was like it was distant history, but it wasn’t, so it’s potential to change, though, and really make a difference is if it is taken, and parts are started to be implemented. It moves the goal post. It changes the paradigm. But for that to work, the Palestinians have to come to the table. Not one of the mistakes that maybe they [the Americans] made was turning or pushing aside the Palestinians throughout this process. They [the Americans] thought that they [the Palestinians] would eventually come, maybe, because of economic benefit or because of pressure from the Arab world that’s turning away from them and [has] had enough of being held back by the Palestinians. They want to engage more with Israel. They want to engage more with the United States. That remains to be seen if that works. Maybe it will, and if it does, hats off to the Trump Administration. But if it doesn’t, we haven’t really gone anywhere.

TML: Or did it put things back? I mean, there always are these questions that enter each time a new phase comes into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Yaakov Katz: If we find ourselves in a third intifada or a new round of violence, then I would be very concerned that this [the peace plan] is what sparked this. But on the other hand, it [includes] progress because it changes the paradigm. It changes the misconceptions that have been going on for years. For 25 years, Felice, people have been banging their heads against the wall saying this is how we have to do peace. But it hasn’t worked. So finally, someone has come to the table and said, “Listen, there is a new way of doing things. There is a new way of looking at this conflict. Let’s try something new.” I think that with that, they [the Americans] deserve credit, because after 25 years of banging your head against the wall, it’s not suddenly going to break. Your head will break, but the wall is not going to break, so it’s time to try something new.

TML: Fourth elections, maybe. There is a possibility. What’s your take?

Yaakov Katz: I don’t see based on the current polling how anything will change. The numbers are the same. The blocs are the same. Netanyahu is still holding onto his seat. Gantz….

TML: And the Arab vote changed something, too.

Yaakov Katz: The Arab vote could potentially change if it comes out, if there are bigger numbers and a little larger [Israeli] turnout drops but the Arab turnout rises. That could be a game changer, but again that’s not something that’s going to give Gantz [a] victory [and] it’s not going to give Netanyahu a victory. And they’re both not going to come and sit together [in a unity government], which means the likeliest scenario – unless, somehow, a few seats move from one bloc to the other – is that we will head toward a fourth election. And by the way, I think Netanyahu wants that. Netanyahu wants to be in a position where he is still prime minister as he goes through his trial, which will begin in the months after the election. It’s not a bad place to be, so even if it’s not with a coalition government, he’s still interim prime minister. He’s still in his seat. He’s still in power. And he still has that upper hand.

TML: Women are the big losers in this election. Israel has actually gone backwards, and as a democracy that Israel likes to say it is in the middle of the Middle East, that’s a sad statement. Why do you think this is?

Yaakov Katz: I couldn’t agree with you more. I think it is a sad statement. I think that when I look at the ministers who sit around the cabinet table – I think there are only two today, [maybe] three who are female out of twenty-something – there’s not enough members of Knesset. You look at the party list. Take Blue and White as an example. In their top 10, there’s only two women. Actually, in the religious party, the National Religious Party, they have five out of 10 who are women, so that’s actually kudos to them. Israel only had one female prime minister, Golda Meir, back in the 1970s. Maybe that’s the solution to all our troubles.

TML: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is entering the 16th year of his term. What’s going to change that? 

Yaakov Katz: I don’t tell people who should lead them, but I think that there is something to say about the state of democracy and the Palestinian Authority by the fact that they don’t hold elections. Either way, Mahmoud Abbas is nearing the end of his term. He’s older. He’s not healthy. At some point he will step down. And the question is, who will come after him? Will it be someone who is more aggressive, who will take a stronger approach in rhetoric against Israel? Or is it someone who will be more open to compromise? And I hope and pray that that’s what will happen.

TML: Yaakov, your background in defense and as a military reporter at one point, along with your studies at one point at Harvard University, have given you lots of credentials in terms of writing and in terms of defense. What spurred this book? 

Yaakov Katz: I was the military reporter when this happened, and it [the attack on the Syrian reactor] always amazed me. I was just taken in by the secrecy that surrounded it [and] that no one was willing to talk about it. How this thing had grown on the other side of the border – this is Israel’s backyard, Syria, and we didn’t know about it. And I felt that the story had not been told and that there was a bigger story here. And while in Israel we knew little tidbits of, yes, the air force attacked it, yes, the Mossad discovered it, but what about in-between? What about the Israeli-US relationship here, which is a key part of the book of how Olmert decides to share this intelligence with the Americans, and the Americans go through this whole process on their own of what they should do. Should they attack? Should they not attack? And how this could have been a point of friction and tension and a crisis between the two countries, but it actually strengthened the relationship between the two countries, so it speaks volumes to the vibrancy and the resilience of the Israeli-American military and diplomatic alliance. I think that that’s what makes the story so fascinating.

TML: Yaakov Katz, thank you so much. The book Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power, and it’s published by St. Martin’s Press. 

Yaakov Katz: Thank you!

TML: Thank you very much.

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