TEL AVIV — The Bush administration's decision to divulge details about a purported Syrian nuclear reactor destroyed by Israel puts at risk a vow of silence on the attack observed by the Jewish state to avoid war with Damascus, former Israeli officials say.
For the past seven months, Israeli officials have doggedly refused to confirm or deny a role in Sept. 6 attack. The silence reflects an often-used tactic in the Middle East of keeping a low profile, so as not to embarrass enemies into a retaliation.
"If there is some information that would force the Syrians to do something, it is not fair to us or [the Syrians]," said Giora Eiland, a former general and former chief of Israel's National Security Council.
The hush-hush, Ms. Eiland explained, is a part of an accepted "code" of communication between Israel and its Arab neighbors that keeps a lid on sudden flare-ups in violence.
"The nature of the Middle East is that many things can be known, but as long as you can pretend it never happened, or you don't know who did what, then the other side is not forced to do anything," she said.
The daily Ha'aretz newspaper reported yesterday that Israel's defense establishment was worried that the publication of the details of the attack would raise tensions with Syria. The silence is credited with avoiding a ratcheting up of pressure on Syria to respond.
Ha'aretz added that Israeli officials traveled to Washington several weeks ago to coordinate the details to be published.
The meetings included an Israeli request that details disclosed would focus on U.S. intelligence on the Syria-North Korea connection, and minimize the information given on the attack itself.
The newspaper quoted an official who tried to play down significance of the expected revelations.
"There was no desire to humiliate the Syrians," said Uzi Arad, a former foreign-policy adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, when Mr. Netanyahu served as prime minister.
"The passage of time had the effect of reducing Syrian need to refer, comment or react. That's why the sensitivity isn't as acute," Mr. Arad said.
The revelations in Congress, and to reporters yesterday, come amid reports attributed to Syrian President Bashar Assad of a back channel peace dialogue with Israel.
According to the reports, which remain unconfirmed by Israel, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert offered to give back the strategic Golan Heights in return for full peace.
Just a few weeks ago, however, tensions spiked between Israel, Syria and Hezbollah over reports of Syrian troop movements near the Golan Heights. Israel's neighbors, meanwhile, complained that a nationwide security drill in Israel suggested Israel was preparing for war.
Israel also employs a similar policy of silence regarding its nuclear program, which it refuses to acknowledge. Analysts say this refusal has helped avoid a regional race over nuclear weapons.
There was some speculation in official circles that the U.S. revelation might actually benefit Israel. Israel gets to keep an official poker face, while the U.S. revelation enhances Israel's ability to deter attacks by making public details of the attack.
"This actually plays into Israel's hands. Israel doesn't want to brag and put Assad into situation where he has to react. On the other hand, there's the deterrence factor," said one source. "Our job is being done. There is a saying in Hebrew that, 'The righteous job is being done by others.' "