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Olmert Blasted for Nuclear Tongue-Slip

Monday’s statement by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, interpreted as an admission that Israel possesses nuclear weaponry, aroused a storm of protest over the loss of Israel’s traditional ambiguity.
First Publish: 12/12/2006, 2:44 PM / Last Update: 12/12/2006, 8:40 AM

In an interview with German SAT1 TV, Olmert was asked about the recent statement by US Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates which "explained" Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons. Gates told a Senate Committee confirmation hearing that Iran is "surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons — Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf.”

Olmert responded by saying, "We never threaten 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 [Iran] are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel and Russia?”

Reactions from Israeli politicians across the political spectrum were swift and fierce. They understood Olmert's statement as a declaration that Iran is aspiring to have nuclear weapons "as do America, France, Israel and Russia."

Likud Knesset Member Yuval Steinitz called for Olmert’s resignation in the wake of what he called “a series of problematic slips of the tongue in matters of defense.” He cited a previous slip regarding the fate of Israel's kidnapped soldiers.

Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, speaking on Arutz-7's Hebrew newsmagazine today, said that Olmert's statement gives ammunition to Israel's enemies. "Other countries ask why only Iran is being pressured, while Israel is not a signatory to the nuclear proliferation charter," Shalom said. "It also enables Iran to claim that it is developing nuclear capabilities in self-defense."

MK Yossi Beilin, chairman of the left-wing Meretz-Yahad party, said the Prime Minister’s remark was “irresponsible to the point of recklessness... and raises serious doubts whether this is a person worthy of serving as Prime Minister.”

National Union MK Aryeh Eldad gave Olmert the benefit of the doubt in considering the slip to be an intentional change in Israel’s 50-year policy of “nuclear ambiguity.”

If indeed that is the case, Eldad said, then Olmert must make “a clear announcement to the free world that if it does not stop Iran [in its nuclear development program], then we will stop it at any cost.”

Former Foreign Ministry Director Alon Liel said that nothing is new about what Olmert said, "but what's worrisome is his irresponsibility in saying it."

PM's Office Explains
The Prime Minister’s Office responded to the criticism by saying that Olmert’s statement had been misinterpreted.

They explained that Olmert was responding to Gates' statement, explaining as follows: When Olmert said, "Can you say that this is the same level, when they [Iran] are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel and Russia?" he actually meant to reverse the order of the phrases: "Can you say that this is the same level as America, France, Israel and Russia [as Gates implied], when they [Iran] are aspiring to have nuclear weapons?"

Olmert spokeswoman Miri Eisen, who is traveling with the Prime Minister, denied that his statement had broken Israel’s traditional silence on its nuclear capabilities. “No, he wasn’t saying anything like that,” she said.

The Prime Minister’s Office said that he had simply “listed Israel among the list of responsible nations, and not the list of nations which have nuclear weapons.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev affirmed that Olmert had only intended to include Israel in the list of democratic nations whose sense of responsibility was radically different from Iran.