Olmert's nuclear slip stirs uproar in Israel

Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday sparked an uproar after an apparent slip of the tongue in which he for the first time listed Israel as a nuclear power, but few expected the blunder to alter the Jewish state’s “policy of nuclear ambiguity”.

Israel, widely considered the Middle East’s sole nuclear power, has for decades refused to admit or deny whether it possesses an atomic bomb.

But on Monday, Olmert appeared to break the taboo in an interview with a German television station as he began a visit to Berlin.

“We never threatened any nation with annihilation,” Olmert said, speaking in English, on the N24 Sat1 station.

“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 France, America, Russia and Israel?” he asked.

Olmert’s spokesperson Miri Eisin was quick to deny that Olmert had admitted to Israel having nuclear weapons, saying that: “Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the region.”

But the blunder—which came less than a week after Israeli officials rounded on the incoming United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates for the same slip-up during his Senate confirmation hearings—sparked outrage, with lawmakers from across the political spectrum calling on the premier to resign.

“The staggering comments of Ehud Olmert only serve to reinforce the doubts on his capacity to remain prime minister,” said leftist MP Yossi Beilin.

Right-wing opposition Likud MP Yuval Steinitz called on Olmert to step down after having made “an irresponsible slip which puts into question a policy that dates back almost half a century”.

Meanwhile, observers warned that Olmert’s statement threatened to undercut efforts by Israel and the West to prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear programme, which Tehran says is for civilian purposes and the West fears is a cover for acquiring atomic weapons.

Mordechai Vanunu, who served 18 years in jail after blowing the whistle on Israel’s nuclear programme in 1986, welcomed the remarks.

“Olmert’s remark is nothing new, but it is a good thing that Israel decided to make it public,” he told Agence France-Presse. “The world should now not only talk about Iran but also about Israel as a nuclear threat that has to be dealt in order to make a nuclear-free Middle East and bring peace.”

But in scrambling to contain the damage, Israeli officials said Olmert’s slip would not change the decades-old policy of keeping mum of whether the country has atomic weapons.

“I support the policy of ambiguity and I don’t see Olmert’s statement as a declaration that Israel has nuclear weapons,” Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer told army radio.

Said a senior government official: “This is a real slip of the tongue, which was not planned.
It is embarrassing for Israel, particularly when it is dealing with such a sensitive issue. But this does not change a thing. Our policy stays the same.”

The remarks “don’t change a thing because Israel’s policy of ambiguity has stopped being ambiguous because all world leaders assume Israel has an atomic bomb”, Yossi Melman, the Israeli Haaretz daily correspondent, who specialises on nuclear issues, told the media.

“Now more than ever Israel should say nothing that could give more excuses for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons,” he said.

Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity dates back to the early 1960s, to an agreement struck with the US and France.

Under this policy, the Jewish state would not carry out any nuclear tests and stay mum on the issue in order to prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.—AFP

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