(photo credit: AP)
"Israel would not be the first to present nuclear weapons in the Middle East," Vice Premier Shimon Peres said on Tuesday, when asked whether Israel was equipped with nuclear weapons. But "unlike other countries, we are not threatening to use them," he added, in what represents yet another statement that challenges Israel's nuclear ambiguity policy.
It was not the first time Peres, considered the father of Israel's nuclear program, has hinted that Israel has nuclear weapons capability. Last May, after another genocidal outburst by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Peres responded by saying that "the president of Iran should remember that Iran can also be wiped off the map."
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In December of last year, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, while on a visit to Germany, told German television, "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?"
Olmert's statement, whether a slip of the tongue or not, followed words by then incoming US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who told a Senate committee, "They [Iranians] are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons - Pakistan to the east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us [the United States] in the Persian GulfÖ¹ It is not possible to guarantee Israel that Iran will not attack with nuclear weapons."
Peres, in Tokyo for a four-way "confidence-building" conference with the Palestinians, Jordan and Japan, focused on the Iranian threat, the Saudi peace plan and the future "Valley of Peace" project, in which Japan is a main investor.
Saeb Erekat led the Palestinian delegation and the Jordanian delegation carried the blessing of King Abdullah.
Peres said Israel rejects any preconditions on discussing the Saudi proposal to restart long-stalled peace efforts. He said the revived Middle East peace proposal represents progress in the Arab position, but all its elements need to be fully negotiated.
The plan calls for a full Israeli withdrawal from areas captured in the Six Day War, and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. In exchange, Israel would receive full diplomatic recognition from the Arab world.
"As an Arab position, it is progress, and we would like to continue negotiations," Peres told reporters. "But it is the opening position, not yet the fallback," he said, saying any final agreement would be different from the original proposal.
Peres also repeated Israel's refusal to negotiate with Hamas before the latter's compliance with the demands of the so-called Quartet (US, UN, EU and Russia) that Hamas recognize Israel, halt terror attacks and return captured IDF soldiers.
"What are we meant to do, buy a Japanese robot that would negotiate with Hamas in our place? If Hamas starts to honor agreements, leaves the path of terror and recognizes Israel, we will talk with Hamas, I guarantee it," Peres said.
An Arab summit in Saudi Arabia on March 28-29 is expected to revive the 2002 Saudi proposal. The plan was rejected by Israel because of some of its articles, which Israel could not accept, but the current government is now showing renewed interest, as talks with the Palestinians yield few results.
Peres said the plan represented progress over past Arab refusals to recognize Israel's right to exist, but that tough issues such as refugees and the status of Jerusalem would have to be worked out in talks.
In the past, Israel has rejected the plan's call for a full withdrawal from the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
The government has also expressed reservations about the plan's call for right of return for Palestinian refugees.
Peres said the talks in Tokyo, which start on Wednesday, would also focus on fostering economic and environmental cooperation among Israel, the Palestinians and Jordan.
"If this will be a success, it will open a new vista for the peace process in the future," he said.