JERUSALEM, (Reuters) – Israeli media are calling it a “nuclear slip” of the tongue. Aides to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert deny any change in policy.
Either way, Israel’s decades-long position of nuclear weapons ambiguity appears to have crumbled after Olmert implied the Jewish state has the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal in an interview broadcast on German television.
It is less than a week since incoming U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, speculating at a Senate confirmation hearing on Iran’s possible motives for trying to build nuclear arms, suggested that Israel had the bomb.
Olmert’s remarks led Israeli news bulletins on Tuesday.
Both mass circulation Hebrew-language newspapers had front page headlines: “Olmert’s nuclear slip of the tongue”.
Speaking in English in the interview, Olmert said: “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?”
Arch-foe Iran, whose president has called for the elimination of the “Zionist regime”, has denied seeking nuclear arms. It says its nuclear programme is for civilian use.
Israel has long declined to confirm or deny having the bomb as part of a “strategic ambiguity” policy that it says fends off numerically superior Arab enemies.
This reticence is a major irritant for Arabs and Iran, which see a double standard in U.S. policy in the region.
By not declaring itself to be nuclear armed, Israel skirts a U.S. ban on funding countries that proliferate weapons of mass destruction. It can thus enjoy more than $2 billion in annual military and other aid from Washington.
Opposition politicians in Israel on Tuesday rounded on Olmert, who has seen his personal approval rating plummet since the summer war against Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas. “This causes great harm to Israel. We are in the midst of a huge (diplomatic) onslaught against Iran’s attempts to make a nuclear bomb,” former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, a member of the right-wing Likud party, said on Army Radio. “We always face the same question which our enemies ask: ‘Why is Israel allowed to (have a bomb) and not Iran?’
Yossi Beilin of the left-wing Meretz Party, which is also in opposition, questioned Olmert’s fitness to lead. “The prime minister’s amazing statement regarding nuclear capability indicates a lack of caution bordering on irresponsibility,” the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper quoted Beilin as saying.
Olmert’s aides have gone into frantic damage control. His spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, who accompanied the prime minister on a trip to Germany, said he did not mean to say that Israel possessed or wanted to acquire nuclear weapons. “No he wasn’t saying anything like that,” she said.
Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israeli security analyst Ronen Bergman asked whether Olmert had deliberately dispelled the policy of ambiguity or just made a mistake. “It could be that Olmert wanted to hint at Israel’s capability as part of the aggressive statements he has recently been making, with the goal of warning the West that if they don’t take care of Iran, Israel will,” Bergman wrote. “On the other hand, this may have been a slip of the tongue.”
Israel’s main atomic reactor, officially for civilian use, became operational in the early 1960s.