Recently retired, General Eli Ben Meir was the intelligence officer who, in 2006, overcame resistance from both Israeli and Bush administration intelligence officials—led by then Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte—to advocate for the bombing of a Syrian nuclear facility developed by North Korean scientists.
Just after midnight on September 6, 2007, Israel launched operation Outside the Box, an airstrike against the nuclear reactor in the Deir ez-Zor region of Syria. Israeli F-15I fighter jets armed with laser-guided 500-pound bombs, escorted by F-16I fighter jets and signal intelligence aircraft, raided and destroyed the Syrian radar site in Tall al-Abuad, followed by the demolition of the nuclear reactor. Israeli special-forces had arrived at the nuclear site the day before to highlight the target with laser designators.
General Ben Meir was appointed head of the Technological Intelligence Department at the IDF Military Intelligence in 2005. “Signs of nuclear activity were evident at the beginning of 2000, before I dealt with this issue,” he told The Jewish Press this week. “However, many signs had been proven false or could be shown to be related to something else entirely.”
“By the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006, my suspicions regarding a Syrian nuclear covert activity increased, and I decided that there was enough evidence to prove its existence, and that something should be done about it,” Ben Meir said. He called for additional resources and manpower to focus on the reactor, “and the more people that dealt with it the more information we found,” he recalled.
At that point, Israeli and American intelligence officials began to push back against the newly appointed head of tech intel’s hyper interest in the alleged Syrian reactor. “Even within my own unit, many thought that there wasn’t a case to be made that this was a nuclear reactor, or even that there was any nuclear activity,” Ben Meir recalled. “They studied the same information and provided a different logical explanation to what had been discovered. My unit and I were pretty much alone in trying to find more evidence for the nuclear reactor, and also in getting everyone else to understand that there is something going on there.”
“Once all the necessary people were convinced that there was a Syrian nuclear reactor, and leading up to the attack in 2007, my team’s main role was to provide the relevant information for the military discussions,” Ben Meir said. “This included the decision of what level of damage needed to be caused so that the facility was no longer operational. We prepared the operational intelligence for an aerial attack and we were responsible for providing an assessment of how much time was left before the plant became operational, because the moment the nuclear plant became operational you could no longer attack it, it would have been like diffusing a nuclear bomb.”
According to 2018 Israeli media accounts, the debate over striking before or after the Syrian nuclear reactor had gone live was conducted between outgoing PM Ehud Olmert and his incoming replacement, Ehud Barak. Barak, according to those reports, did not have a problem striking the facility after it had gone online, because he insisted on not being rushed into executing his predecessor’s plan. Ben Meir was asked to brief Olmert on a weekly basis, and the PM, who was being forced to resign under suspicion of corruption, was eager to get the credit for the attack.
The retired general sums up the impact of operation Outside the Box: “Everyone knows about the situation in Syria over the last 10 years, and especially in the last five years. The situation in the Middle East would have been completely different had Syria possessed nuclear capabilities – not only because of developments in Syria, but even more alarmingly, because of the way Hezbollah and Iran would have used the Syrian nuclear capability as an umbrella for their terror activities and the spread of their revolution. Destroying the Syrian nuclear weapons capability was one of the most important actions that the Israeli leadership has carried out. It didn’t solve all the problems in the Middle East, but it certainly helped lessen the severity of the situation today.”
General Ben Meir is convinced Iran is “by far” Israel’s biggest threat. “It is a direct threat via their missile capabilities when and if they have nuclear capabilities, but we are not there yet,” he said. “Iran is the biggest engine in the world for terror activity and unrest in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. All of them are directed against the Sunni world but also against Western interests, including Israel.”
“They are directly involved in open and covert activities, especially in Syria and Lebanon. They are the financier, trainer and arms supplier for Hezbollah – everything that they have and will have comes from Iran. It is the only country in the world that says openly that they want to destroy Israel and erase it from the map,” he concludes.
General Ben Meir has been involved with Migdal Ohr (Hebrew: Lighthouse), a group providing education and social guidance to children from underprivileged and troubled homes across Israel. Thousands of children come to the group’s programs from overcrowded apartments, single-parent families, homes with drug problems, impoverished and crime-ridden families. They are enrolled in all areas of the educational spectrum, and the charity’s goal is to transform them students into proud and productive citizens of Israel.
“A lot of Israeli citizens know about Migdal Ohr and their wonderful activities,” said the retired general. “During my military career I came across soldiers who were graduates of Migdal Ohr programs. Migdal Ohr is involved with the army, and it very much speaks to me.”
These days, according to Ben Meir, Migdal Ohr is starting a new program to prepare and supports their students before, during and after their service in the IDF.
“Now that I have reentered civilian life, I want to be more involved in helping strengthen Migdal Ohr with my connections in the army, and to support their new program by sharing my experiences,” he said.
To hear General Ben Meir speak about his role in the destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor and his thoughts on current events in Israel and the region, come to the American Friends of Migdal Ohr Annual Gala, which will fundraise for one of Israel’s leading non-profit organizations, providing a free top-tier education and life-changing essential programs and services to nearly 12,000 poor, orphaned, and at-risk Jewish children across Israel.
Wednesday, May 9, at the Edison Ballroom, 240 west 47th Street, New York.
To purchase tickets or for more information, please contact American Friends of Migdal Ohr at 212-397-3700 and firstname.lastname@example.org