Israel’s government on Friday responded to the latest revelations about its alleged air strike against Syria last September in the same way it did when news of the attack first broke: it said nothing.
Behind the scenes, however, there was genuine satisfaction among Israeli officials with the series of briefings on the strike that were given by the Bush administration in Washington. The hearings, Israeli officials argued, had served the purpose of strengthening Israel’s deterrence – but without undermining the latest diplomatic efforts between the two countries.
The briefings confirmed what – despite the official media embargo – everyone here knew already: that the Israeli air force attacked and destroyed a secret facility in Syria on September 6 2007. But in a boost to Israel, the US also gave a firm justification for the attack, stating that the target was a nuclear reactor – built with North Korean help – that was “only weeks” from being completed.
By stressing that the US had not given the green light to the strike, Washington also bolstered the Israeli government’s claim that it had the ability and confidence to fight threats to the Jewish state alone.
Israeli officials said on Friday the government’s continuing silence reflected concern that public statements would further antagonise and embarrass Syria, and risk provoking a violent reaction.
But Israel, they said, still had an interest in being identified with the attack: “We need this element of deterrence – it’s a good hint for Iran,” one argued, adding that “they [the US] did us a favour”.
Some believe the US allegations, which had been widely trailed in the media, were related to the second significant development in Israeli-Syrian relations this week. Just a day before the hearings, Syria disclosed that Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, had offered to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. The territory was captured by Israel in the 1967 war and was later annexed.
The existence of the offer was not denied by Mr Olmert’s office.
Israeli officials and analysts said on Friday they believed the Syrian leadership had decided to publicise the restart of the peace efforts to pre-empt the expected criticism of the country’s alleged nuclear activities.
“This was Syrian spin,” one official said, adding that serious talks would in any case have to wait until the next US president took office and for a more stable Israeli government.
But Eyal Zisser, the director of the Tel Aviv-based Moshe Dayan Centre and a Syria analyst, said Mr Olmert’s intervention was still significant. “This was the first time since 2000 that an Israeli prime minister said he was ready to hand back the Golan. This is important, but we are still at the beginning.”