Israel to keep mum on nuclear weapons capacity

by Jean-Luc Renaudie
Thu Dec 7 2006

Israel will continue to keep mum on whether it has atomic weapons, officials have said after the incoming US defense secretary described the Jewish state as a nuclear power.

" Israel won't say, or not say, whether we have nuclear weapons," Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres told public radio Thursday. "It suffices that one fears that we have them and that fear in itself constitutes an element of dissuasion."

The Jewish state is widely considered to be the Middle East's sole nuclear armed power, but has never confirmed or denied the suspicions, and continues to campaign against arch-foe Iran's nuclear program.

" Israel is the only country threatened with destruction. Israel does not threaten any other state," Peres said.

" These statements change nothing fundamental," he said, referring to comments by Robert Gates Tuesday, a day before he was approved by the Senate to replace Donald Rumsfeld as defense secretary.

During his confirmation hearing, Gates referred to Israel as one of the region's nuclear powers, along with Pakistan and Russia.
Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of Israel's influential security cabinet, also reaffirmed the need for Israel to maintain a "policy of ambiguity" in regard to the nuclear issue.

" I have no idea why Gates made those remarks," he told public radio. "But we have to continue to stick to the policy of ambiguity, which has nothing but advantages as it contributes to our power of deterrence."

Foreign experts estimate that Israel has up to 200 long-range nuclear warheads.

Israel and the United States claim that Iran is covertly seeking to develop atomic weapons, an allegation repeatedly denied by Tehran which insists it wants only to generate energy.

In a documentary aired on Israeli television in 2001, Peres said that France agreed in 1956 to provide Israel with "a nuclear capacity" as part of secret negotiations ahead of the invasion of Egypt known as the Suez crisis.

Under the scheme, Britain, France and Israel colluded in an elaborate plan under which the Jewish state attacked Egypt, and France and Britain sent paratroopers to "separate the belligerents" but in practice to secure the canal.

The failed offensive, aimed at seizing the Suez canal back from then Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser after he nationalized the strategic waterway, ended with the withdrawal of troops after the Soviet Union threatened to intervene.

Thanks in part to French support, Israel launched a nuclear reactor at Dimona in the southern Negev desert in 1964. Its activities remain classified.

Israel's nuclear program came to the international fore in 1986, when Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Dimona was kidnapped, covertly shipped back to the Jewish state, and jailed after lifting the lid on the inner workings of the plant to Britain's Sunday Times newspaper.

He was released in 2004 after serving an 18-year term, but has been repeatedly banned from foreign travel.

He became something of an international cause celebre during his time in prison, while widely reviled at home, in part for converting to Christianity shortly before he was seized.