WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former President George W. Bush says he considered ordering a U.S. military strike against a suspected Syrian nuclear facility at Israel’s request in 2007 but ultimately opted against it.
Israel eventually destroyed the facility, which Syria denied was aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability.
In his memoir, “Decision Points,” to hit bookstores on Tuesday, Bush wrote that he received an intelligence report about a “suspicious, well-hidden facility in the eastern desert of Syria” that looked similar to a nuclear facility at Yongbyon, North Korea. This prompted suspicions that Syria was trying to develop a weapons program with North Korean help.
Shortly afterward, he spoke by phone with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
“George, I’m asking you to bomb the compound,” Olmert told Bush, according to the book, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters.
Bush said he discussed options with his national security team. A bombing mission was considered “but bombing a sovereign country with no warning or announced justification would create severe blowback,” he wrote.
A covert raid was discussed but it was considered too risky to slip a team in and out of Syria undetected.
Bush received an intelligence assessment from then-CIA Director Mike Hayden, who reported that analysts had high confidence the plant housed a nuclear reactor but low confidence of a Syrian nuclear weapons program.
Bush said told Olmert, “I cannot justify an attack on a sovereign nation unless my intelligence agencies stand up and say it’s a weapons program.”
Bush had ordered the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on intelligence that said Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which were never found.
Olmert was disappointed by Bush’s decision to recommend a strategy of using diplomacy backed up by the threat of force to deal with Syria over the facility.
“Your strategy is very disturbing to me,” Olmert told Bush, according to the book.
Bush denies charges that arose at the time that he had given a “green light” for Israel to attack the installation.
“Prime Minister Olmert hadn’t asked for a green light and I hadn’t given one. He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel,” Bush wrote.
In Jerusalem, Olmert’s office declined comment on the disclosures in the Bush memoir.
Israel has never formally confirmed carrying out the sortie nor that it targeted a nuclear facility. The Olmert government was pursuing indirect peace talks with Syria at the time.
But Olmert, who resigned in a corruption scandal in 2008, has recently lifted the veil, speaking of a “daring operation” that he ordered despite opposition from his rival, Ehud Barak, who was then and now is defense minister.
In Vienna on Friday, the United States warned Syria it may face action by governors of the U.N. nuclear watchdog if Damascus fails to give its inspectors access to the remains of the suspected nuclear site. It has been more than two years since the International Atomic Energy Agency was allowed to visit the site.
Bush wrote that Olmert’s “execution of the strike” against the Syrian compound made up for the confidence he had lost in the Israelis during their 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which Bush feels had a mixed outcome.
Lebanon’s young democracy emerged from the conflict stronger for having endured the test, Bush said, but “the result for Israel was mixed.”
“It’s military campaign weakened Hezbollah and helped secure its border. At the same time, the Israelis’ shaky military performance cost them international credibility,” Bush wrote.
Bush’s book is published by Crown Books, a subsidiary of the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann.
Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Editing by Vicki Allen and Bill Trott