December 13, 2006

Israel's Nuclear Weapons

There was a collective gasp and gulp in Tel Aviv earlier this week when Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert seemed to confirm what everyone already knows - that Israel has nuclear weapons. Here are the exact words, spoken in English (granted, not Olmert's native language): "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?"

According to the prime minister's spokesman Miri Eisen, Olmert was not listing nuclear powers, but rather was referring to "responsible nations." I know Miri, and recently spoke with her at length in Tel Aviv. She is smooth and polished, so I'll give her a "nice try" but I am not buying it.

Olmert has been under tremendous pressure since his disastrous failure of leadership during the Israeli war with Hizballah last summer. Some claim he has been out of his league since he was propelled into his current position when Arik Sharon suffered a stroke in January 2006. It is no wonder he likely slipped when talking about what has become the most emotional subject in Israel - the Iranian nuclear weapons program, what most Israelis believe is an "existential threat" to the state of Israel. (See my earlier piece, Iran - "Existential Threat" to the State of Israel.)

In discussions with senior Israeli officials during my recent trip, the subject of Israel's nuclear weapons capability arose often. The Israeli policy of "nuclear ambiguity" - neither confirm or deny the existence of a nuclear arsenal - remains unchanged. The leaders believe this adequately serves their needs - it creates a belief in the minds of potential adversaries that Israel in fact possesses the weapons, while at the same time allows the United States government the fig leaf that Israel is not a nuclear power, thus avoiding legal sanctions.

There are proposals circulating in American and Israeli think tanks that Israel should adopt a different policy. One proposal, Project Daniel, calls for disclosure of Israel's weapons capability with the concurrent declaration that a nuclear attack on Israel will result in immediate nuclear retaliation against a set list of cities - including most of the Arab capitals and Tehran - regardless of who was the responsible party.

In the end, the Israelis will continue the policy of ambiguity and the United States will pretend that Israel is not a nuclear power.