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Why Israel maintains nuclear ambiguity

Ehud Olmert's apparent admission that Israel has nukes calls into question the country's longtime vow of silence.

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Israel's nuclear deterrent is credited by analysts with convincing Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to abandon hopes of a military defeat of Israel, and with dissuading Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from fitting the Scuds he fired at Israel in the 1991 Gulf War with nonconventional warheads.

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Meanwhile, the low profile has allowed Israel to skirt any internationally imposed nuclear oversight while avoiding stirring a nuclear race with its immediate neighbors.

"Breaking the ambiguity now will create two undesirable results," wrote Ron Ben Yishai, a defense commentator, for the Israeli website Ynet. "One would be to provide an excuse for Israel's neighbors to [acquire nonconventional materials], and [the other would be] to bolster efforts in the international arena to dismantle Israel of its nuclear capability."

Indeed, an Arab League spokesman insisted the comment was an intentional "test balloon" and urged member states to bolster their readiness for a nuclear attack, the Egyptian official news agency reported. For years, Egypt has made occasional calls for the international community to force Israel to open up its nuclear program to inspection.

For decades, discussion of its nuclear policy has been something of a taboo in Israel. Academic research and media articles are subject to a military censor, and information on Israel's nuclear program is usually attributed to "foreign sources" for safe measure.

The only inside documentation of the program was made public in the 1980s by Mordechai Vanunu, a former employee at Israel's Dimona Nuclear reactor who gave pictures of the core to the London Sunday Times, a report which spurred a round of speculation about the size of Israel's nuclear arsenal.

Some in Israel have questioned whether stifling discussion of the country's most important weapon is healthy for a democracy. But defenders of the policy insist that silence is the most responsible approach Israel can take.

"This is viewed as something that is obviously not for use unless Israel faces an extreme situation where it feels its existence is threatened," says Emily Landau, a fellow at the Tel Aviv University affiliate Institute of National Security Studies. "The international community should be happy that Israel's policy is a policy of ambiguity."

But an atomic Iran would require a change in Israel's longstanding policy, say some experts. A region with more than one potential atomic power calls for a more explicit form of deterrence.

"In order to make a situation that existed in the cold war, that existed between the US and Soviet Union, you need that both sides threatened by each other," says Michael Karpin, an author of a history of Israel's nuclear program, "otherwise the side that doesn't make the threat is weaker. For a balance of terror so that both sides don't use the bomb, you need to know that the other side has the bomb."