Olmert inadvertently acknowledges Israel has the bomb

Posted in Israel / Palestine | 13-Dec-06 | Author: Greg Myre| Source: International Herald Tribune

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has apparently acknowledged, inadvertently, that Israel possesses nuclear weapons, an issue on which the state has sought to maintain ambiguity for decades.

In an interview broadcast Monday on a German cable news channel, N24, Olmert was asked about Iran's nuclear program. He said that the United States, France, Britain and Russia had nuclear weapons and were "civilized countries that do not threaten the foundations of the world."

Then he added: "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons as America, France, Israel, Russia?"

Olmert's aides said after the interview was broadcast that there was no change in Israel's policy of refusing to confirm or deny that it has nuclear weapons. The interview took place Friday in Israel but was shown Monday, timed to Olmert's visit to Germany.

Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said by telephone, "Israel's policy has not changed." The prime minister and other officials have consistently said that Israel would not be the first country in the Middle East to possess nuclear weapons.

For decades, Israel has refused to say whether it has nuclear arms, despite the seemingly universal belief that it does.

Its policy of ambiguity is seen as a way of creating a deterrent without making it explicit. Openly possessing nuclear arms, it is thought, could invite sanctions or encourage an arms race in the Middle East.

Avner Cohen, an Israeli who has written about the country's nuclear program, said, "Israel's ambiguity policy has become so anachronistic."

"The world has taken Israel as a nuclear weapons state for about 40 years," said Cohen, a senior research fellow at the University of Maryland and the author of "Israel and the Bomb."

In the 1970s, Cohen said, President Ephraim Katzir caused a stir when he accidentally acknowledged that Israel had nuclear capability. "An older generation of leaders had a real taboo about talking about this," Cohen said. But Olmert, he added, is of a generation that "treats the issue much more normally. The world doesn't need any official confirmation at this point."

Critics jump in from all sides

Olmert's comment came under criticism from across Israel's political spectrum on Tuesday, The Associated Press reported from Jerusalem.

In a front-page editorial, the newspaper Haaretz slammed Olmert, who it said "preferred to forget that he was prime minister, not another commentator" or some minor politician.

Yossi Beilin, head of the dovish Meretz party, criticized Olmert's "carelessness." Together with Olmert's "failures" of leadership during the Lebanon war, Beilin said, "it might be an indication that he isn't fit to serve as prime minister."

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, of the hard-line Likud party, another opposition party, said the comment could hurt Israel's attempt to get the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He said Olmert has allowed Israel's enemies to say, "Why are you dealing only with Iran while Israel is confirming that it has the same kind of weapons?"

But one of his few defenders was Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of Olmert's coalition government and a former defense minister. "There was no damage here," he said on Army Radio.