Israel Takes a Swipe at Syria

Israelis cheer reports that their Air Force hit what may have been a secret nuclear-related target

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Giving for Israel: A government photo of Prime Minister Olmert donating blood last week.

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TEL AVIV—It's too soon to tell whether Israel's Air Force raid in Syria was a wise move from a security standpoint. One outcome, though, is clear already. The September 6 incursion has made Ehud Olmert a much more popular—or maybe less unpopular—prime minister. A poll last week in Yediot Achronot, Israel's largest newspaper, showed a 10-percentage-point jump, to 35 percent, in Olmert's approval rating in the raid's immediate aftermath. Israelis backed the air raid by nearly an 8-to-1 margin, even though its details are shrouded by extraordinary secrecy.

Politically, "Operation Orchard," the mission's code name, was by far the most successful move Olmert has made in office. It also boosted the standing of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the Labor Party leader, apparently at the expense of opposition Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu. With blanket censorship on even any direct acknowledgment of the raid, Netanyahu stumbled in a TV interview, saying, "I was party to this matter, I must say, from the first minute and I gave it my backing." The media jumped on him for a seemingly reckless attempt to horn in on the winner's circle.

Speculation. The raid drew a crescendo of Israeli public applause, spurred by foreign media reports on the possible nature of the target: a shipment from North Korea marked "cement" that unnamed sources said was really material related to nuclear weapons development. Earlier reports, likewise attributed to Bush administration sources who had been briefed by the Israelis, suggested that the target was nonnuclear weaponry meant for Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla movement that attacked Israel last summer. Before that, the speculation focused on whether Israeli jets were trying out a route for a raid on Iran's nuclear installations or testing Syria's Russian-made antiaircraft defenses.

All these different versions followed the initial, angry Syrian announcement that Israeli jets had invaded its territory, tried to bomb an unspecified target, missed, then fled from antiaircraft barrages. As for the later nuclear claim, the North Korean officials called it "groundless," while a Syrian cabinet minister branded it "rubbish." Asked about the raid, President Bush ducked the question but reiterated warnings to North Korea against spreading weapons technology.

The alleged North Korea connection drew surprised reactions from some independent analysts. Would North Korea risk such a move just when it was negotiating the end of its own nuclear program in return for world diplomatic acceptance? Another dissenting point is that Syria has neither the economy nor the technological capability to develop nuclear weapons, even with limited outside help. Said Yiftah Shapir, a missile-warfare expert at Israel's Institute for National Strategic Studies: "My guess is that, in the worst case, North Korea gave Syria the most embryonic sort of equipment needed to manufacture nuclear weapons, which would take decades of work by thousands of technicians that Syria doesn't have."

The raid in northeast Syria has increased tensions between the two enemy nations, whose mutual suspicions led to a worrisome buildup of forces along their border this summer. So far, Syria's vague threats of retaliation haven't materialized. Moreover, there has been an unusual silence from other Arab governments, normally more than eager to denounce Israel, which suggests that Syria's alliance with the radical, Shiite Iran is hurting its ties with its Sunni Arab neighbors.