Under the cover of darkness, the pair of Sikorsky CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters flew low to evade radar detection. Inside, the commandos – disguised as Syrian soldiers and armed with AK-47s instead of their usual M-16s—were doing one last review of their equipment. The heavy lift Sikorsky choppers carried old and camouflaged Syrian- model military jeeps which the troops planned to use for transportation once they were on the ground.

It was August 2007, and Military Intelligence chief Yadlin had crafted a plan to send elite commandos from the IDF’s General Staff Reconnaissance Unit—better known by its Hebrew name Sayeret Matkal—deep into Syria. It would be one of the top five covert ops he ran as head of Aman.

The mission was complicated—get as close to the reactor as possible and return home with pictures and soil samples. No one could know that the Israeli soldiers had been there.

Covert operations like these need to first be approved by the prime minister. Yadlin had explained that while the photos obtained in the Mossad raid were impressive, many of them were a few years old. It was true that the IDF had daily satellite imagery of the site, but that was not enough to know what exactly was happening there. Israel wanted to know if the fuel rods had been installed, an important indicator for determining how close the reactor was to becoming hot.

Beyond the intelligence collection, the raid served another purpose—to prove that the IDF could reach the site on the ground. The cabinet needed to know what its options were and whether a ground operation was one of them before approving an attack.

The helicopter pilots could see the small canyons rising above the Syrian desert and the tranquil water of the Euphrates off in the distance. Behind the transport helicopters carrying the commandos, were attack helicopters as well as a rescue chopper with a team from the IDF’s elite airborne search-and-rescue unit on standby in case something went wrong. An airborne command plane, tasked with intercepting Syrian military communications, was circling high above far out of reach of any radar or surface-to-air missile system.

For missions of this kind, Sayeret Matkal usually has months to prepare. Sometimes, operators get assigned a mission a year in advance. Depending on the complexity, the operation becomes their lives. They train for it and build mock targets to practice. They live and breathe the operation. But sometimes, the missions get nixed. Military statistics show that a Sayeret Matkal operator usually trains for three-to-four special operations during his military service. Fifty percent get cancelled.

Sometimes it is the political echelon which changes its mind or it is new intelligence that comes in and changes the original operational requirements. For a Matkalist—the nickname for operators in the unit—there is nothing more frustrating.

Sayeret Matkal, which operates under Aman, is known for some of Israel’s most breathtaking operations. Matkalists were behind the successful raid on Entebbe, Uganda in 1976 to free a group of Air France hostages. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the commandos ran a number of special operations. One brought them deep into Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a known Hezbollah stronghold, where the IDF wrongly thought the two abducted reservists were being held. Other operations included sabotaging Iranian arms convoys en route to Hezbollah.

For this mission, the battle procedure was shorter, a result of the narrow window that existed between learning of the reactor and the deadline for attacking it. The training began in early June and lasted a month and a half.

IDF Information Security made the operators sign special confidentiality forms, as they did before every special mission. Matkalists were used to telling their families they would be away for a couple of weeks and after returning, not being able to say a word about where they had been or what they had done. Every few days, senior officers showed up to take part in the training or to see with their own eyes as the operators ran through the model one more time.

Before the mission, as always happens, a conversation broke out about the weight each commando should carry in his kit and whether it was more important to load up on fire power or scouting and camouflage materials. The commandos boarded the helicopters knowing that as soon as they hit the ground, they would be on their own. If something went wrong, the chances of getting rescued were not particularly high.

The helicopters dropped them a few dozen kilometers from the reactor. The rest of the way they made in jeeps and on foot. Matkalists are expert navigators and spend a good portion of their training learning how to get to places with nothing more than a compass, and sometimes even without. A lot of the preparation for this mission was used studying the terrain in Syria so they would be able to find their target.

On missions like this, the commandos usually split into different groups. A small squad of scouts goes ahead leading and clearing the way. Every half hour, the commander orders a planned stop. In between, the commandos suck water out of a long straw extending from between the straps of their bags and munch on energy bars, the wraps of which they stick in a pocket so not to leave anything behind.

The scouts remain about 100 meters ahead of the main force. Before entering a new area, the commander of the scout force presses twice on his two-way radio, an agreed upon sign that it is safe for the rest of the force to proceed.

As Israel’s top commandos, Matkalists get whatever equipment they need. Night vision goggles, anti-tank missiles, explosives and satellite communications are the basics. The unit also has a technical team that builds specially-tailored weapons and hardware.

The operators had been briefed by geologists and scientists before the mission. They were told what to look for and what samples they would need to bring back. When they were close enough to the reactor, the team leader gave the order and a few of the soldiers started filling plastic boxes with dirt, soil and plants. They had to dig deep to get the right samples. Radioactive exposure was not a concern. Israel was looking for tiny traces of uranium that would have naturally scattered during the reactor’s construction.

The core part of the mission took just a few minutes. When they were done digging, another soldier walked around with a device that looked like a small broom to make sure that they hadn’t left any tracks. The last thing they needed was a Syrian army patrol discovering the holes a few days later. Nothing could be left behind.

The force commander gave the signal and the soldiers headed back to the pickup point. When they crossed back into Israel, Olmert received an update. He let out a massive sigh of relief.

A few days later, the lab results came back. The soil samples were positive. Now there were no doubts about the site. This was definitely a nuclear reactor.

At the same time though, Israel received a stark reminder that time was running out. The reactor was on its way to becoming hot. If there was going to be an attack it had to be soon.

***

Olmert and Yadlin had a close relationship. A few days earlier, during one of the cabinet meetings, Yadlin had taken Olmert aside and assured him that a narrow strike, one using just a few planes, would be enough to take out the reactor.

The attack on Syria, Yadlin explained, was nothing like the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi reactor he had participated in 26 years earlier. Then, he said, there was a real fear that some of the planes wouldn’t return home or even make it to the reactor. “We needed a large fleet to make sure that the mission would get done,” he said. In Syria though, the target was close, fairly isolated and completely unprotected.

“A few planes are all we need to get it done,” he concluded. While some of his advisers were advocating for a larger strike package, Olmert did not argue with Yadlin. It was hard when your intelligence chief also happened to be one of the eight pilots who risked his life and flew one of the F-16s used to destroy Iraq’s reactor.

A few days later, Olmert sent Yadlin on a diplomatic mission overseas. Bush had already said that America would not be attacking the reactor but Olmert wanted to give a heads up to one more ally—Great Britain.

Olmert called British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and asked that he authorize Sir John Scarlett, head of the powerful British espionage agency MI6 to meet with Yadlin. His motivation for sharing the intelligence with the British was twofold. MI6 is one of the most powerful spy agencies in the world and has a strong presence throughout the Middle East. Olmert wanted buy-in from London in case a war erupted but he also wanted to make sure that MI6 was not aware of the reactor and was not in the midst of its own operation that could potentially interfere with what Israel was planning.

Scarlett came to the meeting with two of his deputies. Opposite him was Yadlin alongside two other Israeli intelligence officers. What the Israelis pulled out of their briefcases took the British completely by surprise. Scarlett immediately classified it as an “intolerable situation.”

They were shown the same photos that Dagan had brought with him to the White House three months earlier as well as some additional details the Israelis had gathered on the reactor in the months since. The facility, Yadlin told Scarlett, was being built under a tight shroud of secrecy and outside of the “normal Syrian government structure.”

Scarlett was shocked. MI6 is known for penetrating deep into Arab countries. He had also personally spent time with Assad and thought he knew the Syrian leader quite well. But, MI6 knew nothing about this. Nothing about Assad pursuing nuclear weapons.

And while Scarlett wasn’t necessarily surprised – many states have tried to obtain weapons of mass destruction – he was taken aback by Assad’s brazenness. The Syria leader, it seemed, thought that if he built the reactor far away in the desert and only allowed a limited number of people to know about it, he could get away with it. That took guts.

For Scarlett and his agents, the three big takeaways from the Israeli briefing were the following: Syria was building what definitely seemed like a nuclear reactor in a very desolate part of the country, very few people knew about it and it was being done outside the normal structure of the Syrian government. While the North Korean involvement was also disturbing, for now, the British were primarily concerned with what all of this meant for stability in the Middle East and the wider world.

But the meeting though wasn’t just about getting London up to speed on the brewing crisis. Israel wanted to find out if MI6 knew about the reactor and was planning its own operation that could get in the way of what Israel was considering. It was also interested in any insight into the background of the reactor – whose idea had it been, where the money came from, were the Iranians involved and what exactly was North Korea out to achieve?

On this last point, the British might be particularly helpful. The al-Kibar reactor, under construction in Syria, was a replica of the Yongbyon reactor in North Korea, which, in turn, was modeled after Calder Hall, a British reactor opened in 1956. Israel wanted to see what light the British could shed on the reactor, its design, output and capabilities.

After the meeting, Scarlett immediately updated Gordon Brown, who had taken up the premiership just two months before. Depending on what happened, this was news that had the potential to change the world.

***

As the end of August grew closer, questions still remained. One was about timing—how much time did Israel have to carry out the attack? All along, Olmert had set the beginning of September as the deadline for a strike, but the cabinet still needed to decide. The other question was about the attack method—by ground or by air and if by air, how exactly?

In the Air Force, the man responsible for preparing the airstrike was Major General Eliezer Shkedi, a quiet mild-mannered pilot. The son of a Holocaust survivor, Shkedi felt an obligation to do whatever it took to prevent Israel’s enemies from having a capability that could threaten the very existence of the Jewish people.

His father, Moshe, was a Hungarian Jew who managed to jump off a cattle car traveling from Budapest to Auschwitz. Moshe eventually made his way to the “Glass House”, a building used by a Swiss diplomat who issued “letters of protection” to save thousands of Jews from the Nazis. His parents and four sisters weren’t as lucky. They were never seen again.

Shkedi enlisted in the Air Force in 1975 and became one of Israel’s first F-16 pilots, making a name for himself as a professional and daring combat operator. As head of the IAF, Shkedi helped hone Israel’s targeted killing methods—based on a unique combination of quality intelligence and precise airstrikes—a capability later replicated by the United States and other western countries in their own battle against terrorists across the globe.

One missile developed at the time came with a tiny warhead that was so accurate, it was capable of blowing up—without harming any bystanders—a single room in a high-rise apartment building or a lone car or motorcycle driving down a busy road.

Under his watch, intelligence-gathering methods also underwent modifications with stricter procedures put in place to tighten control over the decision-making process which leads to a targeted killing.

It was a unique combination of innovative thinking, accurate missiles, high- quality intelligence and advanced command-and-control systems. With targeted killings, Israel saw a drop in collateral damage and civilian casualties. In 2002, for example, the combatant-civilian death ratio was 1:1, meaning that for every combatant Israel killed, it also killed a civilian. By 2008, when Shkedi stepped down as IAF chief, the ratio had dropped to 30:1, meaning only one civilian for every 30 terrorists.

The Holocaust cast a large shadow over Shkedi, as a pilot and senior military officer. He was deputy commander of the Air Force when he received an invitation to send a group of fighter jets to attend the air show in Poland in 2003. Shkedi helped secure approval but together with the flight commander added a condition – the IAF would only send its jets to Poland if it had permission to fly over the train tracks leading to the Auschwitz death camp.

The Poles agreed but added their own condition—the Israeli F-15s could fly over Auschwitz but they would need to fly high above, at an altitude that would put them way out of sight and almost make the whole gesture meaningless. The day of the flight though, Shkedi decided that the flight would be below the clouds so the planes could be seen by a group of IDF officers who, at the same time, would be holding a memorial ceremony along the train tracks which decades earlier had been used to transport over a million Jews to their deaths.

The picture of the three F-15s over Auschwitz—a demonstration of Israel’s might and independence—can be found today in hundreds of IDF offices. Most of the pictures were given out personally by Shkedi who wrote on all of them: “To remember. Not to forget. To rely only on ourselves.”

It was a saying he lived by. As commander of the Air Force, he once asked the head of his branch’s history department to prepare a research paper comparing public remarks made by Adolph Hitler in the 1920s and ’30s to those made by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since his rise to power in 2005. Coming from Shkedi, such a request was not surprising but the results of the research were. Both leaders voiced similar declarations regarding the Jewish nation, Zionism and race.

In 1922, for example, Hitler said: “If I am ever really in power, the destruction of the Jews will be my first and most important job.” In 2005, at a conference called “A World without Zionism,” Ahmadinejad said, “Israel must be wiped off the map.” Shortly thereafter, he said: “The Zionist regime is a decaying and crumbling tree that will fall with a storm.”

Shkedi kept the paper in the top drawer of his desk at IAF headquarters and often shared it with visiting dignitaries. For him, the conclusion was clear. Ahmadinejad, as well as Israel’s other enemies—like Assad—could not be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. The IAF’s fleet of fighter jets, he would tell people, always needed to be ready to prevent a potential repeat of what his father’s family had gone through some 70 years earlier.

Aman’s “deniability zone” theory played a critical role in the debate over the right way to attack the reactor. On the one hand, everyone knew that a kinetic strike—an aerial bombing—would be the most effective method. But, it would also leave the largest signature and be automatically connected to Israel. The planes might be spotted and traced back to their point of origin or landing.

Hypothetically, a covert operation, could be made to look like an accidental explosion and—if successful—would not necessarily be traced back to Israel. On the other hand, it would be more complicated, especially if something went wrong since there would be no assurance that the commandos would be able to plant enough explosives to completely destroy the facility, a concern that led the Americans, months earlier, to nix that proposal.

Israel needed to reach this decision on its own. As Bush had ordered after his July phone call with Olmert—America could assist with intelligence but could play no role in planning a military strike.

In addition, if soldiers were captured, Israel would be looking at another debacle like the one Olmert was already facing with Gilad Schalit being held by Hamas in Gaza and two reservists being held by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The last thing Israel needed was another standoff, this time with an enemy country.

An airstrike, on the other hand, was almost risk free and ensured complete destruction. While Syria did have a sophisticated and advanced array of surface-to-air missile systems—purchased over the years from Russia—the IAF had experience flying over the country and it was unlikely that the missiles would suddenly now become a problem.

In 2003, four F-16s buzzed Assad’s summer residence in the seaside resort town of Latakia in retaliation for the killing of a young Israeli boy by Hezbollah rocket fire from Lebanon. Israel wanted to humiliate Assad – who was vacationing there at the time – and send him a message to restrain his Lebanese terror proxy.

The planes flew so low, they apparently shattered some of the palace windows. Some months later, the Air Force bombed an Islamic Jihad training base in Syria in response to a suicide bombing that killed 19 people. And then in 2006, after the abduction of Schalit, Israeli fighter jets again buzzed the Latakia residence to remind Assad of the price he would pay personally for giving refuge to Hamas’s leadership in Damascus.

In the 1981 raid on Iraq, IAF predictions were that it would lose at least two aircraft. This time around, an airstrike had little downside. Yes, there were always risks when crossing borders and entering enemy airspace, but the reactor was just about 500 kilometers from Israel. All of the planes and pilots were expected to make it home safely.

The operation Shkedi put together involved three squadrons: the 69th Squadron which operated the F-15I, Israel’s longest-range aircraft known by its Hebrew name Raam (Thunder) and capable of carrying over 10 tons of ammunition; and Squadrons 253 and 119 which operated F-16Is known by their Hebrew name Sufa (Storm).

During briefings, Shkedi constantly emphasized three points – the need to avoid detection, to destroy the target and to get home safely. The pilots trained for months but were given very few details. They were told the range, the fact that the target would be a building and that they would need to fly silent and low to avoid radar detection. The exact nature of the target was kept a secret. Only those who needed to know knew.

At least once a week the pilots would get together and conduct a practice flight somewhere over Israel or the Mediterranean. The lead pilot, a major named Dror, drew an imaginary line in his head with the range and tried to calculate where and what the target could potentially be. Based on the range it could have been anywhere—in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria and beyond. Based on the secrecy, he knew one thing for sure—it was extremely important.

The pilots had been handpicked by the top IAF brass and included Dror, who had just completed a term as a deputy squadron commander and his direct commander in the squadron. The oldest pilot was a 46-year-old reservist. The youngest was a talented 26-year-old fresh graduate from flight school.

***

As the military preparations continued, the question of timing came into sharp focus. One day, in mid-August, Dagan showed up at the Prime Minister’s Office and urged Olmert and Barak to attack. The longer Israel waited, he warned, the greater the chance that Assad would discover that his secret was out.

The relationship between the two Ehuds was going from bad to worse. At one point, Olmert toyed with the idea of firing Barak. In the end, he decided not to. Firing a defense minister in Israel would raise too many questions. It would be extremely difficult to continue keeping the existence of the reactor a secret. Additionally, there was a chance that war would break out and Olmert needed the country to believe that it had leadership that was stable.

Dagan told the ministers that he had just gotten off the phone with Hayden, the CIA director, and new U.S. intelligence seemed to indicate that Syria was close to activating the reactor. The Americans knew, Dagan said, the British knew and now close to 2,000 people in Israel knew. It was becoming harder and harder to keep the information contained. All it would take, he said, was one news article or blog post. If Assad discovered that Israel knew, everything would change.

“We need to move faster,” Dagan said.

Yadlin agreed and said that according to Aman’s calculations, Israel had until early September. The reactor was on its way to turning hot. The water canal was almost completed and the fuel rods were believed to be in place. The moment they went hot, Israel would not be able to attack.

“An attack would cause radioactive material to leak into the Euphrates,” he told the ministers. “We do not want to be responsible for what will happen afterwards to generations of Iraqi and Syrian children.”

Surprisingly, Barak seemed to disagree. But here, accounts of the disagreement differ. Some members of the Security Cabinet remember Barak claiming that Yadlin was wrong. First, he apparently said, the reactor could be attacked at a later date, even after it went hot. The dispersion of the radioactive material, he claimed, would not be as bad as Yadlin made it out to be. Israel, he argued, could even wait until April.

Barak clarified his point: “If we learned of the existence of the reactor after it was already active, you want to tell me that we wouldn’t have attacked?” he asked his fellow ministers. “We would have even then.”

Barak then suggested the possibility of striking just part of the reactor. “We can hit the first floor but not the second floor,” he told the cabinet, according to some of the participants. No one really understood what he was talking about but that often seemed to be the case with Barak, whose tactical brilliance was legendary in the IDF.

Yadlin was in shock. He knew he would be risking his position in the IDF and that under the chain of command he was subordinate to the defense minister. But, he couldn’t contain himself. “Despite what the defense minister said, I think that he is wrong and if we are quiet, I think that Assad won’t attack,” Yadlin said.

Barak again felt compelled to clarify his argument: “What I meant was that if we had discovered the reactor after it was already hot, would we not attack because of the dispersion of radioactive material,” he asked the forum.

Israel, Barak said, did not need to chain itself to deadlines. There were other considerations, like preparations for war, he said, that needed to be accounted for ahead of a final decision.

At another tense Security Cabinet meeting on August 1, Barak cut off Major General Ido Nehushtan, the head of the IDF Planning Directorate, who was in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation outlining the military’s different possible options. “I didn’t authorize you to speak,” he told the general. “I am in charge of the army and I forbid you to speak.”

The ministers sat in awe at the power struggle playing out before them. While Olmert knew that he could have the cabinet vote to bypass Barak and authorize Nehushtan to finish his presentation, he also knew that it would also be the end of the general’s career. Instead, he silenced Barak. “Sit down and listen,” he said. “Now the prime minister is speaking.” Then, he took the presentation—he had gone over it the night before—and finished reviewing it for the ministers.

Yadlin, who was also present, became visibly upset. His face turned red and he banged on the table. “No one will shut me up,” he said to Barak. “We, IDF officers, have an obligation to brief the cabinet.”

Yadlin proceeded to give a detailed analysis of the Syrian nuclear program as well as the dangers it posed. Israel, he concluded, had no choice but to act.

Olmert adjourned the meeting but not before he looked each minister in the eye. Some of them were still in shock from the spectacle they had just witnessed.

A week later, there was another cabinet meeting and to this one, Olmert came prepared. Together with Turbowicz, his chief of staff, he had drafted a long speech. It took 40 minutes to deliver and contained all of the details of the discovery of the reactor, the planning, the engagement with the Americans and the final issues that remained unresolved. Israel, Olmert said, had no choice but to attack and destroy the reactor.

“This is a threat that we cannot live with,” he said. He went on to dissect every claim made by Barak and to reject it. “The defense minister says this,” he repeated, “but the truth is…”

The tension between the two politicians continued. The day after Barak had cut off the general’s presentation, he sent a courier from the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem with a letter for Olmert. In it, Barak said that the presentation the general was giving at the cabinet meeting did not “represent the viewpoint of the defense establishment.”

Olmert sent a letter back with the courier. “You don’t speak for the defense establishment. You speak for the military,” the prime minister wrote.

The exchange of letters dragged on for two days and included seven letters until finally Barak wrote: “Maybe we should stop this exchange.” Olmert replied with his own letter: “Maybe we shouldn’t have started it to begin with.”

A few days later, Barak paid a visit to IAF headquarters. There, Shkedi took the defense minister aside and pulled a napkin from a nearby table. “Our plan today is heavy but I’ve given thought to how we can do it differently,” Shkedi said, drawing the operation, which would require only a handful of aircraft, on the napkin.

“This is excellent,” Barak said. “Take a few days and present it to the cabinet.”

While to some of the other cabinet members it seemed like Barak was stalling for time, he was convinced that he was simply doing what he had been elected to do—challenge conventional thinking and come up with the best plan possible. As the final cabinet meeting approached, the large-scale airstrike was still on the table as well as other options, including the newly-crafted quiet airstrike.

The problem was that even within the IDF, there was a difference of opinions about the right option to use in the attack. Ashkenazi, for example, preferred an airstrike while Barak and Yadlin preferred one of the other more covert options. Nevertheless, Barak gave instructions to continue to hone all the different plans. Satellite footage did not detect any armed guards near the reactor. Barak, himself a former commander of Sayeret Matkal, had faith that all of the options could work. The decision would be made at the final cabinet meeting.

But Barak also knew what it was like being an IDF chief of staff. If Ashkenazi was opposed to one of the options, no matter the reason, Barak wasn’t going to fight him.

It was important, Barak believed, that they come together to the final cabinet meeting with a unified recommendation.

***

As the debates continued, Yadlin arrived late one night at his house in a tranquil and picturesque farm community in the center of the country. Perched on a small cliff overlooking the Shfeila—Israel’s flatlands and a region known for its soft-sloping hills in south-central Israel—his house has a direct view of the runways at the Tel Nof Air Force Base.

Yadlin stood there in the dark, thinking about what would happen if the attack went ahead. On the one hand, he was confident that Israel could pull it off. He believed in Aman’s assessment about the “deniability zone” as well as in the Air Force’s ability to destroy the facility. On the other hand, he was concerned about another war and whether the country would be able to withstand the missile onslaught it would potentially face from Assad’s well-stocked arsenal of Scud missiles.

According to updated intelligence in Israel, Assad was under the impression that Israel and the United States were planning a joint and simultaneous attack against Iran, Syria and Lebanon in the coming weeks, around the same time as the planned bombing of the reactor. As a result, he had put his Scud missile batteries on high alert. Some of them were even in their launchers, already pointed at their designated targets inside Israel.

Yadlin couldn’t escape a sense of déjà vu. Here he was, one of the pilots who destroyed the Osirak reactor in 1981, involved in planning the destruction of another reactor.

He was bothered by a nagging question—how long could this go on for? Is Israel destined to live by the sword forever? Will it need to continue bombing nuclear reactors throughout the Middle East for eternity or will Israel, at some point, suffice with the deterrence it has managed to establish to protect itself?

It was an impossible dilemma. If Israel attacked the reactor, it ran the risk of instigating a devastating war with Syria. If it didn’t, one of its enemies would have nuclear weapons. As head of Aman, Yadlin had a front row seat to the deliberations and debates that others sat in on in 1981. He used to think that being a pilot was difficult. Now, he understood the gravity of being a decision maker who, by making what might seem like a simple tactical decision, could be sending his or her country into a full-fledged war. The sense of uncertainty was overwhelming.

On September 5, Olmert convened his Security Cabinet for a final meeting. New satellite footage showed that construction of the reactor was nearly complete as was the digging of the water canal from the Euphrates to the reactor. Aman believed the facility was close to being activated.

In addition, out of the blue, some journalists were asking questions about rumors they had heard of an impending Israeli military strike against Syria. One of the journalists worked for an American newspaper, one that was not bound by Israeli military censor rules. Ashkenazi started to genuinely fear that word was going to leak out. There was no time left.

It was going to be a long meeting. The ministers gathered at 10 a.m. and to prevent anyone from asking questions, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement that the Security Cabinet was meeting to discuss ways to stop Hamas’s rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. It was a standard press release, like hundreds before it.

Yadlin and Dagan opened the meeting, going through the intelligence which everyone was intimately familiar with by now. Aman had prepared a graph it projected on a screen showing the risks of each stage of the operation with different arrows and different colors from red for high to yellow for low.

Once the intelligence chiefs finished, Shkedi and Ashkenazi presented the operational plans. There was still a debate over exactly how to carry out the attack. Ashkenazi asked the cabinet to approve the strike but to leave the decision on the way it should be carried out up to him and the trio that would ultimately determine the timing of the attack—Olmert, Barak and Livni.

Ashkenazi had continued to work on all of the different options. As the cabinet was meeting, the air force was still in the process of making its final preparations.

Recognizing the significance of the moment, Olmert decided to let all of the ministers speak. It was dramatic. Each minister laid out his and her opinion, hopes and beliefs. Some expressed hesitation. Others, like Herzog had little to say.

“May God be with us,” he declared as he raised his hand in favor of the attack.

Livni gave an important insight. Unlike the Second Lebanon War which Israel got dragged into following Hezbollah’s abduction of two IDF reservists in July 2006, Israel this time didn’t need to immediately retaliate to everything Assad would do next. In wars, she pointed out, countries often sought victory images to be able to claim that they had won and their opponent had lost. Those images are usually obtained—if at all—at the end of the fighting—conquered territory, bombed-out enemy bases or a flag raised above an enemy capital city. In this case, she said, Israel will have the image—of the destroyed reactor—right at the beginning.

“We will have victory before the war even erupts,” Livni told her fellow ministers. This meant that depending on the response from Assad, Israel could potentially restrain itself and not respond, thereby preventing a greater escalation.

As she said this, Livni knew there were circumstances beyond the government’s control. If a Syrian missile landed on a kindergarten or shopping mall and caused mass casualties, the public would demand a fierce response. The path to war would then be quick.

All of the ministers except one—Dichter, the former head of the Shin Bet—voted in favor of attacking the reactor and authorized the ministerial trio to decide on the timing and method. While the ministers all leaned towards the option that would destroy the reactor and minimize the chance of war, the final decision was left up to Olmert, Barak and Livni.

At 3 p.m., after five hours, the Security Cabinet dispersed with a feeling of great anxiety. Herzog, who lived in Tel Aviv, looked out the window of his car as he made his way home. He couldn’t shake the feeling that the people out enjoying a warm summer night might not be there by tomorrow if Assad decided to unleash his Scud missile arsenal on Israel.

“It was a feeling of tremendous trepidation,” he later recalled.

In the meantime, after a ten-minute break, Olmert, Barak, and Livni reconvened in the cabinet room. It was just the three of them and a stenographer, sworn to secrecy. One by one, Ashkenazi, Yadlin, and Dagan came inside and presented their recommendations.

Yadlin urged the trio to approve a limited strike. He feared that a large-scale attack by Israel would be too much for Assad to ignore. “We can do it with just a few planes,” the Aman chief said.

Dagan didn’t have much to add. He agreed that the aerial strike was preferable since it would get the job done.

Olmert then asked the two intelligence chiefs to leave the room and for Ashkenazi to remain.

“What is your recommendation?” he asked the chief of staff.

It was a moment Ashkenazi would not forget but one he had prepared for long and hard. He didn’t waste any time. “We need to attack tonight,” he said. “We are ready for the operation and the army is prepared for whatever will come next.”

Ashkenazi said that in his opinion the attack needed to happen by air. A narrow airstrike, that would definitely destroy the reactor but have a relatively small chance of sparking a war.

Livni was initially taken a bit aback. She supported attacking but didn’t know that Olmert, Barak and Ashkenazi were of the opinion that the strike needed to take place immediately. Now that the Security Cabinet voted the chance of a leak dramatically increased. Too many people knew about the IDF plans which were just waiting for a green light. The whole system was on edge and wound up. If there was going to be a strike, it needed to happen.

Livni suggested waiting a bit longer to see how things developed. Yes, the cabinet had voted to attack but there was still time, she thought. Olmert wasn’t willing to wait. “We need to do it now,” he told her. “You don’t want a situation that we vote the three of us and it goes down in history as two against one. Join us.”

Livni raised her hand.

***

As the trio was voting, Shkedi was already making his way to Hatzerim Air Force Base just outside the southern city of Beersheba. He wanted to personally meet with the pilots before they took off for Syria.

The night before, on September 4, the Air Force had carried out its last training flight, this time dropping live bombs over an imaginary target in the Negev Desert. After months of training, they were as ready as they would ever be. Ashkenazi and Shkedi had been there to watch. Shkedi, who had flown with them on one of the earlier training sessions, now gathered the pilots in the squadron’s briefing room. “Your mission is to bomb a nuclear reactor in Syria,” he told the airmen who looked at one another in disbelief. “It is of utmost importance for the safety and security of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

Many of the pilots had flown top secret missions before, some deep behind enemy lines. But none had ever imagined that a nuclear reactor would be their target. They were literally embarking on an operation of existential importance.

“It was a shock but we didn’t really have time to think about it,” one of the pilots recalled years later. “It was definitely something that made me stop and say ‘wow’.”

Shkedi told the pilots that the operation had three objectives: Destroy the reactor, return to Israel without losing any aircraft and complete the mission as quietly as possible and without detection. The name the IAF gave the operation said it all: Soft Melody.

As they picked up their helmets and headed out to their aircraft for a last checklist of inspections, Shkedi stood at the door and shook each airman’s hand. “I trust you and I believe in you,” he said. For the pilots it was a moment they would never forget.

The day before, Major General Gadi Eisenkot, head of the Northern Command who in 2015 would be appointed the IDF chief of staff, convened his senior staff to prepare them for the possibility that war would break out. Eisenkot briefed them on the general intelligence picture without giving too many details about the target.

“There is going to be an attack in the next 24-48 hours,” the general said, adding that while chances were low, there was a real possibility that war would erupt. Due to the need to maintain the element of surprise, Eisenkot told the commanders that they would not be allowed to make any preparations except in their own heads. If need be, he said, they would need to transition quickly into a state of conflict.

In the meantime, Olmert, Barak and Livni headed to Tel Aviv. They planned to watch the operation from the Bor, Hebrew for “Pit” and the name given to the IDF’s underground command center. On the way, Olmert went home to shower and rest. “I have a long night ahead of me,” he told his wife Aliza.

Olmert slept for just about two hours. He woke up at 10:30 p.m., got dressed and into his armed convoy for the drive to the Bor. On the way, he made some phone calls. One was to the editor of a local newspaper who had looked for him earlier that day about an unrelated issue. Olmert played it cool. He didn’t give off even the slightest hint that something historic was about to happen.

Buried hundreds of feet beneath the Defense Ministry, the Bor is the IDF’s main command nerve center, the place where all major operations are planned and overseen. It is accessed through massive steel doors that are sealed shut in the event of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. A big sign warns visitors to leave their cellphones outside. With Iran and Hezbollah actively eavesdropping on Israel, no chances are taken.

The Bor has its own air-purification system and power source. Even if the buildings above ground are destroyed, the Bor will keep functioning.

The stairs seem to go down for miles. The halls are lined with rooms for each of Israel’s different areas of interest. There is Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank and what the IDF calls “Depth”, places where troops might need to operate far from Israel’s immediate borders. These are the rooms where operations are planned and units are allocated based on their expertise and capabilities.

The “War Room,” the IDF’s main command center is where the chief of staff oversees military operations. He has a seat in the middle of a long table lined with computers and phones of different colors, depending on its level of encryption. Each screen shows a feed from a different sensor—naval vessels, satellites or drones.

On special occasions, like this night, the prime minister and other government officials often gather to watch an operation unfold in real time. While the dignitaries sat in one room, Shkedi took his seat in a nearby communications center where he was able to track the planes on a large radar screen. Each plane had its own screen, showing fuel and weapons levels. No chances were taken.

Before joining Olmert and Barak, Livni stopped off at the Foreign Ministry’s Tel Aviv branch and met with all of the relevant spokespeople who were likely to be quizzed the following morning by the media. In a nearby room, an officer from the IDF’s Spokesperson’s Office was scouring the internet searching to see if something had leaked. If word got out prematurely, the team agreed, Israel would treat it like gossip and try to play it down so as not to alert Assad.

By the time Livni arrived at the Bor, the IDF preparations had been finalized. At around 10:30 p.m., four F-15Is took off from the Hatzerim Base in southern Israel and another four F-16Is from Ramon Base in the Negev Desert. All together, the planes were carrying around 20 tons of bombs, more than enough to destroy a building less than 2,000 square meters. Some of the bombs were equipped with satellite guidance systems. Each had a different level of penetration. This way, if one didn’t work, the others could compensate.

While the pilots had spent the day studying the route to the reactor and satellite imagery, there was still concern that something would go wrong. What if, the pilots wondered, Syria had hidden one of its surface-to-air missile systems somewhere near the reactor or that the one sortie wouldn’t be enough to destroy the reactor and another mission would be needed? These were all risks they had no choice but to take.

They flew West, till they were a safe distance over the Mediterranean Sea, all the time operating electronic warfare systems to hide their location. Then, they turned right, northwards towards Syria. For most of the flight they straddled the Turkish-Syrian border, dipping into Syria for the last leg to the reactor.

To infiltrate Syrian airspace without detection, the planes flew extremely low—below 200 feet—and the pilots and navigators maintained strict silence. No one said a word. Any problems—there were some bumpy parts due to unexpected weather conditions—were dealt with by each individual pilot.

Barak lived on the 31st floor of an apartment building in Tel Aviv. It amazed him that the aircraft flew lower than his own apartment, almost the entire way to the reactor.

As expected, there was no resistance. Syria didn’t even see the planes coming. The fighter jets were over their target a little after midnight and broke from formation, climbing to a higher altitude and then diving toward the reactor, one after the other.

Within seconds each plane had dropped two bombs, nearly 20 tons of explosives altogether over the nuclear reactor. The planes’ wings reverberated with the discharge of each bomb. One after another, the bombs struck the roof as well as the exterior walls. Everything was captured on camera. The explosions were consecutive and massive. First the roof caved in. Then, the side walls. The building had been destroyed beyond repair.

The planes hovered above, watching as their missiles hit the target. Thermal cameras gave the pilots a front-row seat on the explosion. They were on top of the target for less than two minutes. Each plane checked in and then the lead pilot broke radio silence. “Arizona,” he reported back to Tel Aviv, the code word for a mission accomplished.

The Bor broke out in a round of applause and hugs but it was all still a bit premature. Shkedi could not yet relax; the pilots still had to get back home safely. By now, Syria knew they were there and they needed to get out quickly.

In the last briefing before the mission, Shkedi had told the pilots that they needed to do everything possible to avoid a direct confrontation with Syrian fighter jets. If, for example, a Syrian MiG tried to engage the IAF F-15s and got shot down, Assad might feel compelled to respond. He wouldn’t be able to enter the “deniability zone”. The same was true if an Israeli jet got shot down or a pilot got captured. It wasn’t just about Israel keeping quiet. The whole operation needed to appear as if it never happened.

At this point though, flying low would no longer help. The pilots kicked their boosters and shot northwards back to the Turkish-Syrian border for the flight westwards to the safe confines of the Mediterranean. Syria fired off some missiles but they were way off mark. By 2:00 a.m., less than four hours after the operation had begun, all of the planes were back at their bases.

Relief swept through the Bor. The mission was a resounding success and the airplanes had returned safely. But this was just the beginning. In all of the other rooms, the IDF operations desks were fully manned. With war a real possibility, no one was allowed to leave. All eyes were on Aman which was busy tracking the Syrian military.

Ashkenazi left the Bor and went back to his office on the 14th floor of the nearby IDF headquarters. He took out one of his Europa cigarettes, lit it and opened a window. As he took a drag, the chief of staff looked out at the Tel Aviv skyline. Would Assad mobilize his troops? Would he put his Scud missile teams on high alert? Every minute counted and any Syrian movement that seemed out of the ordinary could mean that war was coming.

Within a few hours, he thought to himself, the whole city could be in flames.

 

Excerpted from Shadow Strike: Inside Israel’s Secret Mission to Eliminate Syrian Nuclear Power, published May 7, 2019, by St. Martin’s Press.

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