dimona reactor 298.88.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Whether you accept the more prevalent view that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's inclusion of Israel in the nuclear club was an inadvertent slip of the tongue or the minority view that this was actually part of a conscious strategy on the part of Olmert and the US administration to move the Israeli bomb to a more visible place on the table, the inescapable fact is that nuclear ambiguity isn't what it used to be.
The immediate link to Olmert's remark to a German TV crew was incoming US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who named Israel as one of the nuclear powers surrounding Iran, but perhaps the most revealing admission was the one made by Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the "father of Israel's nuclear program" who said in May after yet another genocidal outburst by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that "the president of Iran should remember that Iran can also be wiped off the map."
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Seeing that it was the same Peres who came up 45 years ago with the diplomatic formulation that "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East" that has been in use ever since, it's clear that even he realizes that the ground-rules have changed.
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Israel has faced the threat of its enemies achieving nuclear capability in the past. The Egyptians tried it in the sixties and Saddam Hussein's Iraq made significant progress in the eighties, but that was all under thick wraps of secrecy. Israel fought a successful secret war against the Egyptian program and supplied the Western powers with intelligence that helped them put an efficient end to Saddam's ambitions in the 1991 Gulf War. The only time Israel broke cover was when Menahem Begin sent the IAF to destroy Iraq's Osirak reactor, but aside from that one-time operation, secrecy has been maintained not only over Israel's nuclear program but its never-ending war against the enemies' plans.
But Ahmadinejad changed all that. Iran might officially deny that it is building a bomb, but it positively revels in its "civilian" nuclear program. Frequent updates on its enrichment process, provoking the international community and playing with the IAEA inspectors, spiced up with bellicose statements towards the US administration, open letters to the American public and prophecies of the imminent extinction of Israel, all combine to bolster Ahmadinejad's claim to the leadership of the radical Islamic movement and gain him the admiration of other anti-American figures such as Hugo Chavez. Can nuclear ambiguity be effective at all against such a flagrant offensive? Quiet diplomacy seems to have reached its limits. Up to now, the Israeli public has been remarkably calm in the face of Iranian threats - for how much longer will it go on blindly relying on a government that has hardly proved its competence in recent months?
The Iranian PR campaign isn't the only thing that's changed the nuclear environment. Twenty years ago, Mordecai Vanunu shocked Israel with his insider's account of the Dimona reactor and was swiftly abducted and sentenced. Nowadays, any kid with a computer can easily find on foreign websites the entire rundown on Israel's nuclear arsenal, including squadron numbers and the location of stockpiles and missile bases. The details might be inaccurate, but there is nothing ambiguous about them. Nor is there in the tongue-in-cheek, "wink, wink" fashion that senior Israeli journalists talk nowadays about the "reports from foreign sources" on our "nuclear option."
Nuclear ambiguity was a comfortable arrangement for both Israeli and US administrations, designed to allow Israel to get on with whatever it was doing down there in the Negev without too much international pressure and the US to not seem too hypocritical by not demanding its Middle East ally sign the NPT treaty.
Ambiguity might have worked for four decades, but Ahmadinejad's blustering, the Internet, and Olmert, Gates and Peres' indiscretions all prove that it is now hopelessly outdated.