"Secret" Syria strike helps Israel signal resolve on Iran
* Israel bombed alleged reactor in '07 after U.S. refusal
* Allies clash over military action versus diplomacy on Iran
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Sept 11 (Reuters) - An Israeli cabinet minister on Tuesday invoked his country's ostensibly secret 2007 air raid on an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor to suggest Israel could successfully strike Iran without U.S. support.
Israel has never formally acknowledged the bombing of the desert site at Deir al-Zor nor said what was destroyed - a precaution against drawing Syria into a retaliatory war, according to then-U.S. President George W. Bush, who in his memoir described the target as a nascent, North Korean-supplied reactor.
That Bush, by his own account, declined to carry out a U.S. strike as initially requested by Israel resurfaced this week in an expose by the New Yorker magazine. It touched a topical nerve given current tensions between the allies over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hints he could defy Washington by taking similar action against Iran's disputed nuclear programme.
"According to what was reported, then, too, President Bush was not enthused by an attack, did not agree to the United States taking part, and in any event the right step was taken," Environment Minister Gilad Erdan told Israel Radio.
Erdan, a influential member of the ruling, rightist Likud party, was answering a question about whether Israel could afford to deepen its rift with the United States, which has resisted Netanyahu's demand for a "clear red line" beyond which it would be willing to resort to force on Iran.
The Netanyahu government has made clear Israel is prepared to attack unilaterally if necessary, despite divided domestic opinion and Western calls to give diplomacy with Tehran more time. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons, as did Syria in 2007.
As noted by the New Yorker, differences abound between the single, exposed structure hit by Israel in neighbouring Syria and the numerous, distant and defended Iranian facilities.
LIMITS OF SECRECY
The unprecedented public debate in Israel about prospects for a war with Iran further limits comparison with Syria in 2007 and the sneak Israeli bombing of Iraq's atomic reactor in 1981.
Israeli officials insist they have the technical means to surprise Iran, and that their reticence about Deir al-Zor exists, in part, to preserve such secrets.
But they have also bristled at statements from within the Obama administration questioning whether Israel has the capabilities to cause significant damage to Iran, and countered by invoking the previous missions in Iraq and Syria.
"The mistake then, as now, was to underestimate Israel's military ingenuity," Amos Yadlin, one of the fighter-bomber pilots who took part in the 1981 operation and went on to command Israeli military intelligence during the Deir al-Zor attack, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece in February.
He referred to "the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007" - straying from Israel's no-comment policy.
Asked by Reuters when Israel might give an on-record account of what happened at Deir al-Zor, dropping its censorship order, a defence official said there was no such decision pending.
But the official also indicated Israel no longer feels the same reluctance to offend Damascus, having written off President Bashar al-Assad as a 17-month-old Syrian insurgency deepens.
"Can you imagine what the mess in Syria would look like today if Assad had nukes?" the official said.
Syria does acknowledge having chemical weapons, developed partly to counter Israel's reputed atomic arsenal. (Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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