The World from Berlin Olmert's Diplomatic Bombshell

In an interview on German TV, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert indirectly revealed that Israel is -- surprise! -- a nuclear power. Intentional or not, the Freudian slip was a political bombshell, notably in Olmert's native Israel.


Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during his three-day trip to Germany and Italy. The visit has been overshadowed by Olmert's recent comment indicating an admission that Israel is armed with nuclear weapons.
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Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during his three-day trip to Germany and Italy. The visit has been overshadowed by Olmert's recent comment indicating an admission that Israel is armed with nuclear weapons.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has come under fire for indirectly admitting that Israel possesses nuclear weapons. In an interview broadcast on Monday on the German private television network Sat.1, Olmert was asked if Israel's alleged nuclear capability weakened its case against Iran's nuclear ambitions. Olmert replied: "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?"

Israeli officials were quick to deny that the prime minister's Freudian slip put an end, intentionally or inadvertently, to Israel's established policy of "strategic ambiguity" about its nuclear program. In Israel, Olmert has been sharply criticized for the episode, and some are calling for his resignation.

On Wednesday, the German press examines what, if anything, might have motivated Olmert to make that admission? The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"One can interpret Olmert's mention of Israel in the list of nuclear powers as a mistake, a slip of the tongue by a busy man. One can see it as further evidence of a politically embattled prime minister who inadvertently broke Israel's greatest foreign policy taboo. But perhaps it was no slip-up, no blunder, but rather a threat -- namely the kind that one can turn right around and deny, but whose message is nonetheless unequivocal."

"In this case, the target of the threat is Iran. Olmert is indicating that Israel, as a nuclear power, is a strong opponent that no other state can simply wipe off the map. This interpretation is reinforced by the fact that US Secretary of State-designate Robert Gates also described Israel as a nuclear power a few days ago. In an interview with SPIEGEL, likewise immediately prior to his visit to Germany, Olmert did not rule out a military strike against Iran."

"Thus, the second address for Olmert's threat is to be found in Washington. Ever since the publication of the Baker/Hamilton Report, the concerned, almost apocalyptical media reports have been accumulating in Israel. There, the country is being portrayed as the victim of a new American policy -- a policy that hitherto does not exist. The Iraq Study Group under James Baker has recommended that in order to pacify Iraq, the Bush administration should also seek dialog with Iran and Syria. In Israel, this is feeding panic that America will allow Tehran to become a nuclear power. This is farfetched, a change of course in Washington is not discernible. Yet there are already voices in Israel saying that, if push comes to shove, they will have to do the job themselves and stop Teheran's nuclear plans."

The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung says:

"(Olmert's) argumentation is very clear. It is directed at those who say, that which is granted to Israel cannot be denied to Iran. The Israeli atomic bomb threatens no one; it serves the sole purpose of Israel's protection. The Iranian bomb, on the other hand, is being built for the sole purpose of destroying Israel. ... Ehud Olmert is certainly right. It would be an abetment of mass murder not to refuse the utterly crazy Mahmoud Ahmadinejad access to atomic weapons."

"But frankly, the result of Olmert's statement is that instead of talking about the dangers emanating from Iran, the Israeli atomic bomb is being discussed. In light of the risk posed by Iran, now that everything is falling apart in Iraq, this is conceivably an inopportune moment. Olmert has once again shown himself to be a clumsy diplomat. That he retreats into the old Israeli formula, 'Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East,' has now made clear to everyone how finely 'have' and 'introduce' are differentiated."

And the business daily Financial Times Deutschland opines:

"Ehud Olmert inadvertently stole the chancellor's show. The Israeli prime minister's meeting in Berlin with Angela Merkel, which should have been a PR-laden prelude to the G-8 and European Union presidencies for the German government, was instead met with limited interest (on Tuesday) because Olmert more or less clearly disclosed that Israel is a nuclear power. And that is tantamount to a political bombshell."

"Olmert's admission has caused great repercussions in Israel, where secrecy is considered an absolute necessity in the preservation of its own security. But globally, the statement is of little consequence given that most experts and politicians have long assumed that Israel has the bomb."

-- Alex Bakst at 2 p.m. CET

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