A fascinating political power struggle is being played out in Israel, between Ehud Olmert and allies and Ehud Barak. The fight involves Olmert’s political legacy as he faces serious corruption charges which threaten to tarnish or destroy his reputation, and also involves bitter interpersonal and political rivalries among all the parties. But most fascinating of all is that this enormous battle is happening in the context of Israeli military censorship which is attempting to keep a very irksome genie in its bottle.
A little background: for several years up until its destruction in 2007, Syria was building a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance. Those hostile to Iran have also claimed that it was supporting the construction costs. When Israel discovered the project, a huge battle ensued within the Israeli political-military echelon about what to do. Ehud Barak, defense minister, opposed attacking the reactor. Though I’m not privy to his specific arguments or concerns, attacking it would’ve amounted to a huge provocation against Syria, possibly led to reprisals, and torpedoed the Israel-Syria peace talks mediated by Turkey.
Ehud Olmert, then prime minister, wanted to bomb the site and was supported by the chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi. By parting ways with his boss, the defense minister, Ashkanazi, poisoned his relationship with Barak. Though Israel did end up attacking and destroying the reactor with very little cost in political or military fallout. It was viewed as an enormous success by a country that had seen its vaunted military deterrence evaporate in the face of failed attack on Lebanon in 2006. Such success may’ve emboldened Olmert to agree to launch Operation Cast Lead two years later, in a failed attempt to destroy Hamas.
Until now, Israel has been very careful not to take credit for attacking the Syria site. It has, much like the cat that swallowed the canary, remained silent while everyone else speculated about the perpetrator. Syria too has become a willing conspirator by maintaining its own silence (though for radically different reasons). The internal maneuvering among political camps inside Israel has revealed a secret the nation has hitherto not wanted known.
What makes this case even more interesting is that, as I wrote, the IDF military censor has intervened energetically in the fracas. Here is a directive it sent to Israeli media outlets today:
The censor asks that any information concerning the battle between Olmert and Barak regarding security matters be submitted for approval. It is prohibited to report on any political analysis about Olmert’s statements which allude to the attack on the Syrian reactor; even if you attribute such reports to foreign sources.
The censor was responding to this earlier report on Voice of Israel radio:
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to attack Ehud Barak, also defense minister in his government, saying that he could not write about security subjects in his new book, and that he did not characterize who initiated daring security operations and who frustrated them in a slippery manner. Our political correspondent explains that this is apparently an allusion to the attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor, perpetrated, according to foreign sources, by Israel. Olmert spokes at a conference organized by the Geneva Initiative.
CORRECTION: Thanks to the reader who pointed out to me that the headline for the article below clearly indicated that this was a fictional interchange which Melman created.
Further, Gabi Ashkenazi spoke with Haaretz security correspondent Yossi Melman (Hebrew) last month and said:
The real reason Barak can’t stand me is that I opposed him and went with Olmert on several strategic matters about which it’s too early to tell. I will permit myself to say that it concerns the bombing of an important enemy facility. Barak opposed it. But the prime minister and I made the decision to act, against his advice. And we saved the State of Israel from an even greater threat than the one posed by Iran.
Yediot Achronot is excerpting passages from the new book (Hebrew) in its Yom Kippur supplement. The autobiography has not yet been published. If anyone knows the name of the book, let me know.
In a way, it’s not surprising that Olmert should be all but confirming the Israeli attack. After all, he was the first prime minister to break protocol and admit that Israel had nuclear weapons. For this, he was roundly chastised by the military censor and others. It appears that the prospect of selling a lot of books in Israel and selling the rights to an overseas publisher has tempted Olmert once again to open his big mouth (and for which I’m deeply grateful, I might add). Further, Olmert and Ashkenazi, both of whom left their government posts are sensitive to their future legacies and seeking to burnish them in the eyes of the buying public.
What Olmert doesn’t realize is that if he’d spent more time on peacemaking and less time on warmaking (Lebanon 2006, Syria 2007, Gaza 2009) he’d have assured his legacy for generations.
As I’ve said many times over the past year in which I’ve been reporting about secret Israeli intelligence matters, the IDF censor is yet again trying to walk the horse back into the barn well after it escaped. In this day and age, you simply cannot exert centralized control over information or military secrets as they are attempting and failing to do. Especially, when powerful figures are chafing to expose them.