Olmert's nuclear remark spurs damage control bid

By Yossi Verter, Haaretz Correspondent,
Haaretz Staff and Agencies

Aides to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sought Tuesday to quell a political storm over an Olmert remark which appeared to publicly confirm that Israel has nuclear weapons.

The statement, which provoked calls for Olmert's resignation, followed recent comments by newly appointed U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who listed Israel among the nations near iran which possessing nuclear arms.

Olmert, who began an official visit to Germany Monday, told the German television news channel N24 in an interview that "we have never threatened any nation with annihilation. 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?"

It is not clear whether this was a slip of the tongue on the part of Olmert or an intended statement. But the Prime Minister's Office said the statement was misinterpreted.

The prime minister "listed Israel among the list of responsible nations, and not the list of nations which have nuclear weapons," the Prime Minister's Office was quoted by Israel Radio as saying.

Reiterating Israel's traditional policy of "nuclear ambiguity," aides to the prime minister stressed that "The prime minister said that Israel will not be the first nation in the region to arm itself with nuclear weapons."

Olmert's comments raised a storm among political figures in Israel.

MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) called on Olmert to resign following "a series of problematic slips of the tongue in matters of defense."

According to Steinitz, "the terrible statement made in Germany undermines 50 years of Israel's policy of ambiguity, and joins the irresponsible slips of the tongue such as the announcement regarding the fate of the abducted soldiers in Lebanon. A prime minister who is unable to control his statements on sensitive matters of security, must quit."

Meretz chairman, MK Yossi Beilin said that "the fantastic statement of the Prime Minister on the nuclear issue reflects the carelessness ... and raises serious doubts whether this is a person worthy of serving as prime minister."

MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) said that if Olmert's statements reflect an intentional change in policy then he must release "an clear announcement to the free world, that if you do not stop Iran, we will stop it at any cost."

Olmert's spokesman, Miri Eisen, who accompanied the prime minister on a trip to Germany on Monday, said he did not mean to say that Israel possessed or aspired to acquire nuclear weapons.

"No he wasn't saying anything like that," she said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Olmert had meant to categorize the four nations as democracies to set them apart from Iran, and was not referring to their potential nuclear capabilities or aspirations.

Olmert's comments come a week after the incoming U.S. secretary of defense, Robert Gates, shocked observers when he said that Israel possessed nuclear arms, before a Congressional confirmation panel.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Olmert in his hotel in Berlin, last night for a meeting that was described as "private."

A private meeting room was set up at the InterContinental, where Olmert and his aides are staying, for the meeting. The two leaders at first met in private and were then joined by aides.

The meeting between the two was not on the official schedule of the visit, and aides were quick to point out that it reflected the warm and special ties between the two leaders.

Prior to his departure for Germany on Monday, Olmert said that Germany should curtail its commercial ties with Iran and that the interests of private businessmen in Germany should not influence German policy regarding Iran.

Germany will assume the rotating European Union presidency on January 1, 2007, and aides to Olmert say that his close ties with Merkel will avail Israel of a friendly interlocutor in matters having to do with the Palestinians.

Olmert and Merkel will meet officially Tuesday at the Chancellery in Berlin. Prior to the meeting, Olmert will address a ceremony commemorating the victims of the Holocaust at Grunewald Station's Platform 17 in Berlin.

Olmert will also meet the German President, Horst Kohler, Tuesday and tomorrow will leave Germany for Italy where he is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Romano Prodi and the Pope, Benedict XVI.