Olmert's stray comment fuels the nuclear debate

The Guardian

Martin Hodgson
Tuesday December 12, 2006

The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, stumbled into controversy last night after apparently admitting that his country possesses a nuclear arsenal. Although widely believed to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, Israel has for decades refused to confirm or deny the existence of a nuclear weapons programme.

But arriving in Berlin for talks with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, Mr Olmert seemed yesterday to undercut the longstanding policy of "strategic ambiguity". He is on a three-day trip to Germany and Italy, to lobby for stronger action to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons.

Asked by a television interviewer if Israel's alleged nuclear activities weakened his argument against Iran's atomic plans, Mr Olmert said: "Iran, openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level - when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons - as America, France, Israel, Russia?".

Israeli officials were quick to deny that the comments marked any policy change. Mr Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said he did not mean to say that Israel had or aspired to acquire nuclear weapons.
The CIA first concluded that Israel had begun to produce nuclear weapons in 1968, but few details emerged until 1986 when Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Israel's nuclear weapons facility, gave the Sunday Times detailed descriptions that led defence analysts to rank the country as the sixth largest nuclear power.

Although Tehran says its nuclear programme is designed solely to generate electricity, Israel has warned that Iran is intent on developing atomic weapons. Mr Olmert told Germany's Spiegel magazine at the weekend that he ruled "nothing out", when asked about the possibility of an Israeli military strike against Tehran.