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Olmert’s remark about weapons sets off crisis

A slip of the tongue by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert about Israel’s nuclear policy ballooned into a domestic crisis Tuesday for the Israeli leader, who came under criticism from across the political spectrum.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Israel’s prime minister spent Tuesday trying to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, after a slip of the tongue in an interview was interpreted as confirming Israel has atomic weapons — widely assumed to be true, but never officially acknowledged.

In an interview with a German television station broadcast Monday, Olmert appeared to list Israel among the world’s nuclear powers.

Asked by the interviewer about Iran’s calls for the destruction of Israel, Olmert replied that Israel has never threatened to annihilate anyone.

“Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map,” Olmert said. “Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?”

Israel, which foreign experts say has the sixth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, has stuck to a policy of ambiguity on nuclear weapons for decades, refusing to confirm or deny whether it has them.

Speaking in Germany, Olmert denied Tuesday that he had “outed” Israel’s nuclear program.

Nothing has changed’
“Israel has said many times — and I also said this to German television in an interview — that we will not be the first country that introduces nuclear weapons to the Middle East,” Olmert said after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “That was our position, that is our position — nothing has changed.”

The comments came days after incoming Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in testimony to a Senate committee, identified Israel as a nuclear power.

With Olmert’s comments featured on the front pages of all of Israel’s major papers Tuesday and with political rivals calling for his resignation, aides to Olmert hurriedly said the remark had been misinterpreted.

Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisin said the prime minister had been listing not nuclear states but “responsible nations.”

The premier’s office said the quote, made in English, was taken out of context, noting that in other parts of the interview, Olmert several times refused to confirm that Israel has nuclear weapons.

One newspaper wondered whether the list of countries raised the possibility the reference to “nuclear weapons” could apply to Iran, not the list including Israel — but that grammatical nuance was lost on the rest of the Israeli media and political world.

Opposition party raps ‘carelessness’
Opposition lawmaker Yossi Beilin, head of the dovish Meretz party, criticized what he termed Olmert’s “carelessness.” Together with Olmert’s perceived failures of leadership during the Lebanon war, Beilin said, “it might be an indication that he isn’t fit to serve as prime minister.”

Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of the hard-line Likud, another opposition party, said the comment could hurt Israel’s attempt to get the international community to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Shalom said Olmert “gave tools” to Israel’s enemies, allowing them to say, “Why are you dealing only with Iran while Israel is confirming that it has the same kind of weapons?”

A senior Arab official echoed that, calling for punishing Israel. Abdul Rahman al-Attiyah, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, said, “The United States should not apply double standards since it calls for sanctions on countries that have nuclear programs that we have not ruled out are frameworks of nuclear weapons.”

Backhanded praise from analyst
Defense analyst Amir Oren, writing in the Haaretz daily, gave Olmert backhanded praise. “Thanks to him, there is no longer any need to rely on real or bogus ‘foreign sources’ when referring to Israel’s nuclear potential,” a longtime requirement from Israel’s military censor.

At the same time, Oren criticized Olmert for losing control of his tongue and forgetting that “he is the prime minister, not just some commentator or politician.”

Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who gave Israeli nuclear secrets to the British paper The Sunday Times in 1986 and served an 18-year sentence for his disclosures, said he hoped Olmert’s comment wasn’t a mistake, but rather “the beginning of a policy change” that would see Israel openly acknowledge its nuclear weapons.

But Shlomo Brom, an expert on strategic affairs at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, said Olmert was simply misunderstood. “This is much ado about nothing,” Brom said. Earlier in the week Brom said no one believes Israel’s ambiguous denials, anyway.