Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is in a bit of hot water, or should we say, more hot water. In an interview with a German TV station, broadcast on Monday, Mr. Olmert inadvertently listed his country among the world's nuclear powers, violating the long-standing policy of not officially acknowleding that it has nuclear weapons.
Asked by the interviewer about Iran's calls for the destruction of Israel, Olmert replied that Israel has never threatened to annihilate anyone.
"Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map," Olmert said. "Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?"
Israel, which foreign experts say has the sixth-largest nuclear arsenal in the world, has stuck to a policy of ambiguity on nuclear weapons for decades, refusing to confirm or deny whether it has them.
Olmert's comments touched off a firestorm of controversy in Israel, where political opponents called for him to resign (not a bad idea, but it should be for other reasons, namely his mishandling of last summer's war with Hizballah). In response, Olmert's aides said that the Prime Minister's remarks had been "misinterpreted." They claim that he was including Israel in a list of "responsible" nations, not nuclear powers.
Fact is, Israel is a nuclear power, and has been for decades. Indeed, Israel's membership in the nuclear club is among the world's worst-kept secrets. By some estimates, the Israelis may have as many as 200 nuclear weapons, ranging from gravity bombs (carried on tactical aircraft), to missile warheads, which can be mounted on their Jericho II medium-range missiles. The Israeli nuclear program has always been shrouded in secrecy, and various governments have spared no effort to punish or discredit those who "betrayed" the nation's nuclear secrets. In the mid-1980s, a fired nuclear technician, Mordecai Vanunu, provided information on the nation's weapons program, including photographs of nuclear warheads, published in the Sunday Times of London. For his efforts, Vanunu served an 18-year prison sentence.
The Federal of American Scientists has an interesting, if a bit dated, summary of the Israeli nuclear program, including the estimated size of Tel Aviv's arsenal. You'll note that two decades after Vanunu's disclosures, we're still guessing about the number of weapons that Israel actually has.
Being deliberately vague on the nuclear issue has worked to Israel's advantage. Potential foes have often over-estimated the size and reach of the Israeli arsenal, increasing its deterrent value. And, surrounded by enemies for much of its existence, Israel can make the case that it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself. On the down side, the Israeli program helped trigger the long struggle for an Islamic bomb, which has resulted in the Iranian nuclear program, technology transfers by the A.Q. Kahn network in Pakistan, and the wide proliferation of ballistic missiles throughout the Middle East.
Mr. Olmert is right about one thing: Israel is a responsible nation, and that caution extends to its nuclear program. Available information suggests that the Israelis have considered the use of nuclear weapons on two occasions, during the 1967 Six-Day War, and again in 1973, during the Dark Days of the Yom Kippur conflict with Syria and Egypt. Surprised by the sudden Arab attack, Israeli lines crumbled, forcing political leaders to weigh the nuclear option:
Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, obviously not at his best at a press briefing, was, according to Time magazine, rattled enough to later tell the prime minister that “this is the end of the third temple,” referring to an impending collapse of the state of Israel. “Temple” was also the code word for nuclear weapons.
Prime Minister Golda Meir and her “kitchen cabinet” made the decision on the night of 8 October. The Israelis assembled 13 twenty-kiloton atomic bombs. The number and in fact the entire story was later leaked by the Israelis as a great psychological warfare tool. Although most probably plutonium devices, one source reports they were enriched uranium bombs. The Jericho missiles at Hirbat Zachariah and the nuclear strike F-4s at Tel Nof were armed and prepared for action against Syrian and Egyptian targets. They also targeted Damascus with nuclear capable long-range artillery although it is not certain they had nuclear artillery shells.
Israel nuclear forces were also on alert again during the first Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam's SCUDs began targeting Israeli cities. According to U.S. Army Lt Col Warner Farr (who produced a lengthy study of Israel's nuclear capabilities in 1999), the Israelis extracted concessions from the U.S. in exchange for "staying out" of the conflict, and--at one point--actually tested a nuclear-capble missile, to pressure us to intensify our SCUD-hunting efforts.
Fiftenn years later, faced with a growing menace from Iran, and continuing threats closer to home, Israel is likely expanding its nuclear arsenal, with the recent acquisition of Dolphin-class submarines, F-15I strike fighters, and the development of cruise missiles, all capable of delivering tactical nukes to distant targets. But those acquisitions--like Mr. Olmert's televised faux pas--will renew the debate of just how public the Israeli nuclear program should be, and if the "non-admission" policy best serves the nation's interests. If Monday's post-interview spin is any indication, the current government apparently believes that the nuclear program should remain a badly-kept secret, to keep Israel's enemies guessing about capabilities and intent. The practicality of maintaining that thin veil of secrecy is open to debate.