Ambiguity isn't what it used to be

Whether you accept the prevalent view that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's inclusion of Israel in the nuclear club was a slip of the tongue or the minority view that this was part of a conscious strategy on the part of Olmert and the US administration to move Israel's bomb capability to a more visible place on the table, the inescapable fact is that nuclear ambiguity isn't what it used to be. Of course, there is a third possibility - put out by Olmert's press aides - that his gaffe was the result of a mistake in English and was taken out of context. But a close reading of Olmert's words simply doesn't bear that out, especially since the prime minister is one of Israel's most accomplished performers in the English language. The immediate link to Olmert's remark was newly-appointed US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who, in his Congressional confirmation hearing named Israel as one of the nuclear powers surrounding Iran. But perhaps the most revealing admission was made by Vice Premier Shimon Peres, the "father of Israel's nuclear program," who said in May after yet another genocidal outburst by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that "the president of Iran should remember that Iran can also be wiped off the map." Seeing that it was Peres who 45 years ago came up with the diplomatic standby that "Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East," it's clear that even he realizes that the ground rules have changed. Israel has already faced the threat of its enemies achieving nuclear capability. The Egyptians tried it in the '60s and Saddam Hussein's Iraq made significant progress in the '80s, 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 Menachem Begin sent the IAF to destroy Iraq's Osirak reactor. Otherwise, secrecy has been maintained, not only about Israel's nuclear program, but regarding its never-ending war against enemy plans. The Mossad was quietly monitoring the Iranian program as early as the '70s, when it was still the Shah's baby, but only in recent years have senior IDF officers started ringing alarm bells, publicly voicing the fear that an Iranian nuclear bomb is a matter of a few years. Still, the official line has remained that the less said the better and that Israel should not be seen as being at the forefront of the campaign against Iran. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon was a staunch believer in this policy, refusing to talk about the Iranians in public and stressing that Teheran's nuclear program was the problem of the international community. Likud MKs Yuval Steinitz and Silvan Shalom were quick to skewer Olmert for damaging Israel's security, but they perhaps forgot that the first senior figure to question the ambiguity policy was their own leader. Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister called for a rethink but was persuaded by veteran intelligence chiefs and diplomats to leave well enough alone. But after leaving office, Netanyahu still maintained the view that if Iran were to achieve nuclear capability, Israel would have to make a change to "nuclear transparency." Netanyahu, though, never made these views public and the ambiguity policy endured. But Ahmadinejad changed all that. Iran might officially deny it is building a bomb, but it positively revels in its "civilian" nuclear program. His frequent updates on the enrichment process, provocation of the international community, and toying with the IAEA inspectors, spiced up with bellicose statements toward the US administration, open letters to the American public, and prophecies of Israel's imminent extinction all combine to bolster Ahmdainejad's claim to the leadership of the radical Islamic movement and to gain him the admiration of other anti-American figures like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. Can nuclear ambiguity be at all effective in the face of such a flagrant offensive? Quiet diplomacy seems to have reached its limits. Until now, the public has been remarkably calm in the face of the Iranian threats; how much longer will it blindly rely on a government that has hardly demonstrated its competence in recent months? Olmert's remark was reported in the international press, but it didn't arouse much more than passing interest, much less a chorus of calls for Israel's disarmament. As far as foreign governments, intelligence agencies and media are concerned, the fact that Israel is a nuclear power is a given. It's only Israelis who remain in the dark as to their country's true capabilities, with the local press forced to play pathetic cat-and-mouse games with the military censorship. The Iranian PR campaign isn't the only thing that's changed the nuclear environment. Twenty years ago, Mordechai 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 the entire rundown of Israel's nuclear arsenal on foreign Web sites - including squadron numbers and locations 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 veteran Israeli journalists use to talk about "reports from foreign sources" on our "nuclear option." And the Iranians aren't the only player in the game. North Korea's Kim Jong-il is openly using his newly acquired nuclear capability to pressure the West, blatantly flexing his muscles with the test of an actual nuclear device in October. The Cold War, at least, kept the nuclear arms race in balance, but ever since the Soviet Union dissolved, there's been an international bazaar for nuclear material - including the stall opened by Pakistani scientist AQ Khan, who sold his knowledge to Libya, Iran and North Korea. Does ambiguity still work in Israel's favor when almost everyone's out in the market already? Nuclear ambiguity was a comfortable arrangement for both the 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 for the US to not seem too hypocritical on not demanding its Middle East ally sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty treaty. Ambiguity might have worked for four decades, but Ahmadinejad's blustering, the Internet and indiscretions by Olmert, Gates and Peres all prove that the tactic is now hopelessly outdated.