Israel Stands by Vague Nuclear Policy

The Associated Press
Thursday, December 7, 2006; 4:59 PM

JERUSALEM -- Israel held firm Thursday to its policy of not admitting it possesses nuclear weapons, in the face of an acknowledgment from the incoming U.S. Defense Secretary that Israel has the bomb.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Robert Gates explained Iran's motivation to acquire nuclear weapons.

"They are 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," he told the Senate committee.

Although Israel is widely assumed to have a nuclear weapons arsenal, it has stuck to its policy of ambiguity on the subject, insisting against all the evidence that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

Government spokeswoman Miri Eisin told The Associated Press "there is no direct Israeli comment" on Gates' remarks. Experts played down the importance of the comments.

Retired Israeli Gen. Shlomo Brom, who was once in charge of strategic planning for the military, said Israel was no longer trying to convince anyone that it has no nuclear arsenal.

He said similar statements came out of Washington during the first Gulf War in 1991 and did not lead to a change in Israeli policy.

"This is nothing really new," he told the AP. "It doesn't change anything."

Israel Radio gave the story prominence in Thursday morning, and one of Israel's three television stations ran a report about the United States' traditional cooperation in the ambiguity policy on its evening newscast.

In 1986, experts concluded that Israel had a sizable nuclear arsenal, ranking it sixth in the world, after Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at Israel's main nuclear reactor, gave pictures and documents to the London Sunday Times. Vanunu served an 18-year prison term for his disclosures.

"The fact is that for a long time, Israel's policy of ambiguity has been not a matter of people thinking we don't have any (nuclear weapons), just that Israel doesn't admit it," Brom said.

Analyst Yossi Alpher said Israel's ambiguity allows Israel's neighbors "to assume that even if Israel had nuclear weapons, this was not a threat to them."

But he said Israel could acknowledge having the weapons if Iran acquires an atomic bomb.

"It's very possible that if and when Iran goes nuclear in the military sense, Israel will have to consider ending its policy of ambiguity," he said.

At a news conference in Tel Aviv on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert responded to Gates' explanation of Iranian motives for acquiring nuclear weapons. He did not refer to the reference to Israel's nuclear potential.

"I don't think anyone in the U.S. thinks there is justification for Iran's achieving nuclear (weapons) capability," he said.

"We are not indifferent, cannot be indifferent, and won't be indifferent to efforts that appear serious to us, to develop capabilities that could be used as a springboard to build a (nuclear) bomb," he added.

Gates told the Senate committee that the U.S. could not guarantee that Iran would not attack Israel with a nuclear weapon if it acquired it.

"I don't think that anybody can provide that assurance," he said.

© 2006 The Associated Press