Why Israel maintains nuclear ambiguity
Ehud Olmert's apparent admission that Israel has nukes calls into question the country's longtime vow of silence.
Israel's nuclear policy was conceived spontaneously when a young deputy defense minister, Shimon Peres, was confronted by President John F. Kennedy at the White House about the Jewish state's rumored ambitions to become a nuclear power.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Peres's response – "I can say to you clearly that we shall not introduce atomic weapons into the region. We will certainly not be the first to do so'' – became a tagline repeated for decades to signal the country's self-imposed "no comment" on its reported nuclear capabilities.
This week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought the cover of Peres's now-famous quip after the Israeli leader seemed to inadvertently acknowledge Israel's nuclear weapons – apparently confirming what has been taken granted for decades by much of the world.
In an interview with German television, Mr. Olmert sought to portray Iran as reckless while placing Israel alongside the accepted nuclear powers. "Iran openly, explicitly, and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map," Olmert said while visiting Germany. "Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, and Russia?"
The uproar that ensued in Israel and abroad highlights the fragility of one of Israel's most finely tuned defense policies, a doctrine of nuclear ambiguity that has enabled Israel to deter foes for decades in a region with only one alleged nuclear power.
But as the possibility of a nuclear Iran looms, some are arguing that Israel may need to rethink that very policy.
"The ambiguity so far has been useful, and we have never threatened the region with a nuclear catastrophe. But sometimes there is no way out of it," says Shlomo Aronson, a political science professor at Hebrew University. "When [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad talks about wiping Israel off the map, this may mean the end of Iran, too.''
To be sure, Olmert's aides were quick to deny that the prime minister meant to blow open the tight-lipped policy of four decades. Critics back home, however, were quick to assail the prime minister for what they called a reckless verbal slip. Most commentators, meanwhile, defended the longstanding doctrine.
"It has been the right policy; it has helped Israel. The Arabs, knowing that Israel is a nuclear superpower and a conventional weapons superpower, probably reduced their aspirations or limited their plans" to attack Israel, says Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist and historian who cowrote a forthcoming book on Iran's nuclear program. Disclosure would spur "pressure on Israel from the international community."
The policy was formalized in 1970 between then-Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Richard Nixon, who agreed to accept Israel's nuclear status on condition that it observe a rigorous vow of silence. In order not to disrupt the US drive to gain nonproliferation commitments from other countries, Israel committed to remain mum about its nuclear program, to avoid tests, and not to threaten other countries with attack.