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Israel finally admitted it destroyed a Syrian reactor in 2007 — and set off a battle of egos

The Israeli military on March 20 released previously classified footage of a 2007 strike on a nuclear reactor in Deir al-Zour, Syria. (Video: Israel Defense Forces)

JERUSALEM — Israel’s admission Wednesday that it was behind a mysterious attack on a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria more than a decade ago has caused a storm.

But not in the way one might think.

Within hours of the Israeli military censor permitting local media to publish most of the details of the 2007 air attack on a secret desert facility in northeastern Syria, as well as releasing blurry black-and-white video footage, former political and military leaders went to war over who should be credited for the operation.

In Israel's eyes, the operation was a resounding success. It prevented its northern neighbor from obtaining nuclear capabilities. Ultimately, it also ensured that the Islamic State militant group would not possess nuclear weapons when it took over the region several years later.

But since Israel's confirmation of its role in the airstrike, a battle has played out on Israeli television and radio and online, pitting two former Israeli prime ministers, Ehud Olmert and Ehud Barak; a former Mossad chief; and a former military intelligence chief against one another.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman later said he regretted allowing the material to be published.

The attack occurred in the early hours of Sept. 6, 2007. Eight Israeli fighter jets flew north along the Mediterranean toward their target 280 miles from the Syrian capital, Damascus. Close to 1 a.m., they dropped 24 tons of ammunition on an isolated desert building, suspected to be a secret nuclear reactor being built by President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel never publicly commented on its role in the attack until Wednesday. But much of this information had already appeared in overseas news reports, with international media organizations that publish outside Israel not subject to the restrictions imposed by the country's military censor. As early as 2007, The Washington Post had written about Israel’s involvement. An article published a month after the strike examined grainy photographs of the “isolated compound that includes a tall, boxy structure similar to the type of building used to house a gas-graphite reactor.”

[Photographs said to show Israeli target inside Syria]

Other information has seeped out over the years. In his 2010 book, “Decision Points,” former U.S. president George W. Bush wrote about his discussions with Olmert, Israel's then-prime minister, regarding the Syrian facility before Israel destroyed it.

In Israel, the media’s hands were tied. They could not report what the rest of the world already had. In recent months, however, pressure to disclose the details intensified ahead of the upcoming release of memoirs by Olmert and Barak that are expected to detail their version of events surrounding the attack.

“If early copies of the two books are anything to go by, we’re in for another bloody round of Ehud vs. Ehud battles,” Anshel Pfeffer wrote in Haaretz, describing the decades of tension between the two former leaders.

Barak, who was defense minister at the time of the Syria operation, hit out at Olmert on Wednesday. Interviewed by Israeli media throughout the day, he called his former boss “delusional,” and said Olmert was “apocalyptic” and the government in hysteria at the time. Barak denied Olmert's claims that he had wanted to postpone the strike, saying instead that he made sure the “decision was well-thought-out,” the Jerusalem Post reported.

But the battle between the two Ehuds, as Pfeffer calls it, is old news in Israel’s political arena.

The acknowledgment of the airstrike also highlighted a rare public disagreement between former Mossad director Tamir Pardo and former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin.

Speaking at a conference Wednesday, Pardo said there would now be “a war of egos,” with each person involved trying to marginalize the role of the other.

Then he went on to take credit, saying that not uncovering Syria’s nuclear project earlier had been a resounding intelligence failure. Pardo said it was only because of the Mossad’s work that the army was certain “there was a reactor in Syria in the first place.”

“It was not at all by luck but through outstanding intelligence work,” Yadlin responded. Earlier, speaking to foreign journalists in a briefing in English, he said that “intelligence is a puzzle. In 2006, we had about 50 parts. Later, when the Mossad brought more parts of the puzzle, we immediately understood we were facing a nuclear reactor with only one purpose: to produce a bomb.”

Speaking Thursday on Israel Radio, Matan Vilnai, who was deputy defense minister at the time of the attack, said, “Granting permission to publicize the details of the operation was a mistake.”

“The operation’s success should go to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who ultimately made the decision,” Vilnai said.