Ehud Olmert's apparent admission that Israel has nukes calls into
question the country's longtime vow of silence.
Why Israel Maintains Nuclear Ambiguity
By Joshua Mitnick
The Christian Science Monitor
December 14, 2006
TEL AVIV 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. 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 co-wrote a forthcoming book on Iran's nuclear program.
Disclosure would spur "pressure on Israel from the international
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.
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 non
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 non conventional materials], and [the other would be] to
bolster efforts in the international arena to dismantle Israel of its
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
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."
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