Israel’s policy of ambiguity over its nuclear capabilities appears to have taken a surprising step toward unprecedented clarity following an, apparently unprepared and even unintentional statement made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an interview on a German news channel. Olmert said that Israel should not be compared to Iran “when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia.”
Olmert’s surprising 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. The incoming defense secretary took this another step: He made it clear that “no one can promise that Iran will not use nuclear weapons against Israel.” Could this indicate that the new Bush administration strategic policy has washed its hands of responsibility for stopping Iran nuking Israel (or anyone else, in the region, for that matter);and that in a future nuclear confrontation, the United States will stand aside and have Israel fend for itself?. If implemented, such a strategy could have devastating consequences for Israel’s strategic posture and deterrence against Islamic fundamentalist rogue states in the Middle East and especially extremist Iran. Unidentified political sources, close to the prime minister’s office, offered the view that Israel cannot afford to leave Robert Gates’ assertion last week, that no one can guarantee Iran will not use a nuclear bomb to attack Israel unanswered- hinting that Olmert’s strange revelation could have been intentional, in an effort trying to redress Robert Gate’s dubious allegation.
Since the Sixties, when Israel is considered to have begun its nuclear program, all presiding Governments have never confirmed possession of nuclear weapons. It remained an open secret in a sceptic world, and especially the highly suspicious Middle East, even following the embarrassing disclosure, when Mordechai Vanunu spilled Israel’s nuclear secrets, some 20 years ago.
Israel’s traditional caution towards its nuclear posture is not unique. All nuclear states maintain a veil of secrecy over their nuclear weapons posture, weapons stockpile, and technological and operational infrastructure. Many details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program and its delivery systems have so far remained uncertain and highly speculative. Israel has long maintained that “it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East”. This declaration was adopted and carefully maintained by all Israeli leaderships and accepted by its ally, the USA, as a strategy of ambiguity, avoiding the need for any formal declaration on the status of Israel’s nuclear weapons program.
Strategic ambiguity, or Opacity, has served Israel’s nuclear policy well and so far has no alternative, defense analysts urge. This code of silence may seem an anomaly in a political culture characterized by a normally open public debate, icluding recently on some of the most sensitive defense issues, which were hitherto regarded top secret. Thus, it is only natural that people may ask themselves, following PM Olmert’s apparently bungling controversial public slip, if the near fifty year ambiguity should last or be replaced by new national strategy. This argument could become substantive only if adequate preparations in a change of strategic policy be held at the highest political and defense authority level, weighing all pro’s and con’s of this delicate issue to Israel’s defensive posture. In-depth consultations should also follow with Israel’s closest allies, primarily, the United States, which must be made part and parcel of any decision.
Finally, if Israel wishes to enhance its deteriorating strategic deterrence in the region, following its questionable performance during Lebanon last summer, there must be more subtle ways found to achieve this. For example, veteran politician Shimon Peres recently hinted in an interview, that should Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continue to threaten Israel’s existence, there are ways to have Tehran pay the heaviest consequences. A similar expression was made by US Senator Hillary Clinton at the Saban conference only last week. Both leaders were carefully avoiding going into details, as to who, or how this deterrence would be implemented. Israeli politicians, including its prime minister would do well, to continue the traditional strategy of ambiguity, until an in-depth and wide ranging study be convened at the highest professional authority in order to decide if and when such a change should take place.
Note: A new analysis assessing the regional implications of New Nuclear Programs in the Middle East will follow in tomorrow’s Defense Update analysis section.