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Ronen Bergman

Olmert's nuclear ambiguity gaffe

Was PM's nuclear remark deliberate or a slip of the tongue?

I wonder what would have happened had the transcript of the interview with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert been presented to Yechiel Horev, head of MALMAB, the information security arm of the Ministry of Defense – without Horev knowing the identity of the interviewee, only that he was a "senior Israeli official."


According to a long-standing cabinet decision, Horev is in charge of safeguarding Israel's nuclear ambiguity policy. Behind closed doors Horev tends to compare this ambiguity policy to a glass of water with water-level markings.


"My role", explains Horev, as he would draw lines on the glass in his hand, "is to make sure the water doesn’t spill over the top. Until the Mordechai Vanunu case (the Israeli nuclear whistleblower) the water level came up to here," he would say. "After the Vanunu case, the water almost spilled over. Only a miracle prevented the end of our nuclear ambiguity policy. Any further leakage or statement would create a spillover."


The root of the nuclear ambiguity policy lies in the covert understandings reached by Israel and the US at the end of the 1960s. According to these understandings, Israel will not reveal details pertaining to its nuclear capability, if such a capability exists.


Over the years, the ambiguity policy became a sacred principle in Israel's security perception. Maintaining nuclear ambiguity was aimed at achieving three primary objectives: Firstly, not to reveal anything that would embarrass the Americans. Secondly, not to create an arms race in the Middle East. The third objective was not to include Israel in the list of nations unable to export raw materials and sensitive technology due to their nuclear capability.


Two gaffes in one week

Israel has devoted significant resources to preventing leaks and severely punishing anyone who risks the ambiguity policy. The Vanunu affair is an excellent case in point.


However, over the years, Israel's ambiguity policy has become a virtual matter. On the face of it, this is absurd: Any child nowadays can search the Google search engine for foreign postings that ostensibly reveal Israel's most sacred secret.


This virtual ambiguity that has been created can only be dissipated by an unequivocal statement by a bona fide Israeli official who would clarify Israel's nuclear stance.


In the past, South Africa ended its nuclear ambiguity at a press conference held by President de Klerk, who announced that his country has 12 nuclear bombs. Pakistan and India revealed their capability by conducting nuclear experiments.


Two gaffes were ostensibly made this week placing a big question mark over Israel's nuclear ambiguity policy. First, US Defense Secretary-designate Robert Gates said Israel has nuclear arms; then, Olmert referred to the issue on Monday.


Deliberate remarks or mere coincidence?

Could this be an intentional effort to dissipate Israel's ambiguity policy or an incredible coincidence? It's hard to say. Perhaps Olmert wanted to hint at Israel's capability within the belligerent statements he has been scattering lately with the aim of warning Western states that if they don't take care of Iran, Israel would do so.


Alternately, perhaps it's just another gaffe in a series of blunders that have beset the prime minister since the outbreak of the second Lebanon War.


Either way, it raises the question of whether Olmert's statement does indeed put an end to Israel's nuclear ambiguity policy. The answer is apparently negative. As long as the US doesn’t demand that Israel agree to international monitoring, as it does of other nations such as Iran and North Korea, Horev's water level may reach boiling point, but it will not spill over.


פרסום ראשון: 12.13.06, 00:14
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