Former President George W. Bush confirms in his memoir that the target of a 2007 Israeli airstrike was a Syrian nuclear reactor and suggests he quietly approved - a revelation with special relevance at a time when Israel is calling for a "military option" against Iran's nuclear program.
Offering insight into how high-stakes diplomacy can play out very differently in private, Bush says the raid showed the Jewish state would go it alone and "made up for the confidence I had lost in the Israelis" because of the indecisive war in Lebanon a year before. In public, by contrast, the United States certainly did not offer praise.
He also revealed that Israel first asked the US to bomb the site, but the Bush administration refused.
The section on Syria is just a small part of a memoir that is generating buzz around the world with its surprising candor.
The former president, who has largely kept a low profile since leaving office nearly two years ago, describes tensions with Vice President Dick Cheney and acknowledges mistakes in his handling of key events from the war in Iraq to Hurricane Katrina to the downturn in the American economy.
Bush's defense of harsh tactics used against terrorist suspects, such as waterboarding, has created an uproar in some corners of the globe, especially in Europe.
Israel, one of the few places where Bush remained popular until his last day in office, has been far kinder. Israeli media have focused on Bush's warm praise for ex-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, his support for Israel's tough crackdown on Palestinian terrorists in the last decade and his animosity toward the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.
The Sept. 6, 2007, airstrike in Syria remains one of Israel's deepest secrets of recent times. Syria announced at the time that its airspace had been invaded but gave no details. Israel has never commented on the operation.
But in "Decision Points," published this week, Bush provides the strongest confirmation yet of reports that citing experts and unidentified US intelligence officials that Israel hit a nuclear reactor being built with North Korean assistance.
Bush writes that in spring 2007 US officials strongly suspected that Syria, a bitter enemy of Israel, had been caught "red-handed trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability with North Korean help." This was based on photos obtained by a foreign intelligence partner of a suspicious building in eastern Syria.
Olmert asked the president "to bomb the compound," Bush writes. The US refused, saying it had only "low confidence" Syria was developing nuclear weapons. Bush wrote that Olmert was disappointed.
'Strong cultural code'
The Israeli strike occurred about a year after Israel's inconclusive war against Hezbollah, in which Lebanese guerrillas battled Israel's powerful army to a stalemate. The poor performance raised questions about Israel's deterrent capabilities.
"Prime Minister Olmert's execution of the strike made up for the confidence I had lost in the Israelis during the Lebanon war," Bush wrote, adding that the Israeli leader rejected a suggestion to go public with the operation.
"Olmert told me he wanted total secrecy. He wanted to avoid anything that might back Syria into a corner and force (Syrian President Bashar) Assad to retaliate. This was his operation, and I felt an obligation to respect his wishes," Bush wrote.
In comments that could have implications for Iran, Bush noted that the Syrian operation was conducted without coordination with the Americans.
"The bombing demonstrated Israel's willingness to act alone. Prime Minister Olmert hadn't asked for a green light, and I hadn't given one," Bush wrote. "He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel."
Through a spokesman, Olmert declined comment, as did the Israeli military and Syrian officials. Syria denies it has any nuclear ambitions and claims the site was an unused military installation.
Israel has a long history of acting unilaterally in the nuclear arena, believing atomic weapons in the hands of its enemies would constitute an existential threat. Israel is widely considered to be the only Mideast nation to posses nuclear weapons. But it refuses to confirm it possesses a nuclear arsenal, following a long-standing policy of "nuclear ambiguity."
In 1981, Israeli warplanes destroyed a nuclear reactor being built in Iraq, and Israeli leaders have warned that "all options are on the table" with Iran.
Israel, like much of the West, believes that Iran is developing nuclear weapons _ a claim that Iran disputes. Israel's current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, raised the ante this week when, signaling impatience with international sanctions against Iran, he called for a "credible military threat."
The comment drew an angry reaction from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said the sanctions are working. American officials have repeatedly urged Israel against taking unilateral action against Iran.
Bush's account does not necessarily mean that Israel is preparing to strike Iran, especially as Bush and Olmert are both out of office.
Nonetheless, Eldad Pardo, an analyst at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said the Syrian reactor bombing is "an interesting model" that could provide lessons on Iran.
Pardo said there is a strong "cultural code" in Israel to protect itself from existential threats as a last resort - a fear that is rooted in the experience of the Holocaust.
"Israel will try as hard as possible not to act alone," he said. But "when matters of nuclear (threats) and possible genocide are concerned, Israel will act alone as a last resort." In such cases, Israel wouldn't tell the U.S. ahead of time because "you don't embarrass your allies."
But Ephraim Kam, a strategist at Tel Aviv University, noted that attacking Iran would be far more complicated than neighboring Syria and would have deeper implications, given Iran's influence and military capabilities. And under the more dovish President Barack Obama, the US has warned Israel against any "surprises," he added.
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