JERUSALEM | The Israeli government has been forced to acknowledge a top-secret meeting held Friday between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Aviam Sela, the chief architect of Israel‘s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, after the media got wind of the details.
Although Mr. Olmert went to extraordinary lengths to withhold details of the meeting by not even recording it in his diary, the Israeli media reported that Mr. Olmert and Mr. Sela had discussed the details of a potential attack against Iranian nuclear facilities.
This followed initial denials from government sources who eventually acknowledged that the meeting had taken place but went out of their way to downplay the significance of the event, although they confirmed that Mr. Sela had detailed his vision for a military attack on Iran from a technical standpoint.
Mr. Sela’s expertise includes fathering the technique of refueling warplanes from the air. He originally had been slated for a high-level appointment in the Israeli air force before he was implicated in the Jonathan Pollard spy scandal.
Pollard was a dual American-Israeli citizen and was imprisoned in the U.S. for espionage after he passed classified American intelligence information to Israel.
Prior to last week’s military dummy-run over the Mediterranean, Israel appeared to be sending mixed signals regarding an impending attack on Iran.
Mr. Olmert vowed during Israel’s Passover that Iran would not turn nuclear, and Israeli Transport Minister Shaul Mofaz has made headlines with comments of his own.
“If Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack,” Mr. Mofaz said.
Other Israeli officials attempted to calm the situation. Mr. Mofaz was criticized by some Israeli politicians as seeking to enhance his own standing as questions mount about whether the embattled Mr. Olmert can hang on to power. Other Israeli officials told the U.S. that Mr. Mofaz’s statement did not represent official policy.
However, the same officials also explained that Israel was preparing plans for a strike on Iran and would carry them out in the event that diplomacy fails.
News reports Friday detailed a military exercise that the Israeli air force carried out over eastern Greece, which was widely seen as a signal to the Europeans, the U.S. and the Iranians that Israel meant business about halting Iran’s nuclear program.
The Mediterranean exercise, which involved more than 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, also included Israeli helicopters that could be used to rescue downed pilots. The helicopters and refueling tankers flew more than 900 miles, which is about the same distance between Israel and Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, U.S. officials said.
Apart from sending Iran a loud message, some analysts said, the Israeli objective was to practice flight tactics, aerial refueling and all other details of a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear installations and its long-range conventional missiles.
Israeli officials refused to be drawn into debate about the details of the exercise but said the air force “regularly trains for various missions in order to confront and meet the challenges posed by the threats facing Israel.”
Iran appeared to be getting the message loudly and clearly as it beefed up its air defenses over the past couple of weeks and went as far as to intercept and double-check an Iraqi civilian flight on its way to Tehran from Baghdad.
Israeli officials think Iran is approximately two years from the technology that would enable it to develop nuclear weapons.
The assessment is contrary to the U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran released in December. That report concluded that Iran had ceased its nuclear weapons program.
The Israelis were visibly dismayed by the assessment and Mr. Olmert followed up the NIE with a quick visit to Washington, where he outlined Israel’s concerns and attempted to override the view of U.S. intelligence agencies with the Jewish state’s perspective.
Mr. Olmert broached the subject again during President Bush’s recent visit to Israel. He is said to have provided Mr. Bush with evidence to support Israel’s conviction that Iran is a far more immediate threat than envisioned.
Mr. Bush promised to discuss Israel’s concerns with his intelligence agencies on his return to the United States.
Many analysts say that it is not a question of if, in regard to an Israeli offensive operation against Iran, but when.
However, even if Israel does strike, the chances that it will successfully eliminate an Iranian nuclear program is questionable. Analysts argue that an attack at best would only delay or minimize the program.
Much of Iran’s nuclear program infrastructure is buried under earth and concrete and installed in long tunnels or hallways, making precise targeting difficult. There is also concern that not all of the facilities have been detected. To inflict maximum damage, multiple attacks might be necessary, which may be beyond Israel’s ability.
Israeli officials have countered that waiting is a mistake and that if immediate action is not taken then it might be too late to halt the advancement required to enrich sufficient amounts of uranium required for nuclear weapons.
However, an Israeli political scientist from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University told the Middle East Times that Iran would strike back heavily if attacked, but it was unlikely that Iran would strike first as it had the option of closing the Straits of Hormuz, thereby choking the West’s supply of oil as leverage, without having to resort to military action.