Another chink in the armor of ambiguity

After decades of denial, and faced with the looming Iranian nuclear threat, Israel is coming clean.

dimona reactor 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
dimona reactor 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One wouldn't have to be a conspiracy theorist to discern an apparent connecting thread between Sunday's admission by the Deputy Director-General of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, Dr. Ariel Levite, that Israel is a nuclear "threshold state," Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's inclusion of his country in the nuclear club in an interview with German television last month, and the reports based on Israeli sources in two British newspapers two weeks ago that Israel is considering using tactical nuclear weapons in an attack on Iran.
  • 'Israel is a nuclear threshold state' After decades of denial and obfuscation, faced with a materializing Iranian nuclear threat, Israel, it might easily appear, is finally beginning to come clean, gradually dropping hints amounting to a barely veiled threat to the mullahs: Don't mess with us. A more sophisticated version would have that threat directed at our American allies: If you don't want us nuking Iran, do something about it yourselves first. Neat theories, but they don't tally with the facts. The flustered and surprised reaction of the normally calm and collected Levite when confronted with what he had said in his lecture was not contrived; neither were the frenzied attempts by Olmert's aides to explain away his nuclear faux pas. Even if there was a new hidden policy of gradual nuclear transparency, the Atomic Energy Commission, steadfast guardian of the nation's deepest secrets for five and a half decades, would be the last place where it would be implemented. Levite's colleagues were surprised and slightly amused at the highly regarded civil servant's mistake. As the official in charge of nuclear policy and diplomacy, he occasionally gives off the record briefings to journalists, generally focused on the capabilities of other countries, and always guarded. This was obviously a one-off slip of the tongue. Neither would such a strategy start from the prime minister. There are those within the defense establishment who believe that nuclear ambiguity has run its course and that the use of battlefield nuclear weapons shouldn't be ruled out if they can ensure the destruction of the Iranian program. But this is still a minority view. Even if the prime minister favored a review of the nuclear ambiguity policy, as Binyamin Netanyahu did during his term, this is one field in which the prime minister's hands are tied to a great degree. He is shackled by secret agreements with US administrations stretching back to Kennedy and the most fundamental precepts of Israel's defense doctrine. Even slight variations are reached only after deep deliberation and consultation. There are no signs anywhere that such a process of change has taken place over the last few months. There is no subtle plan at work here. Olmert and Levite's remarks were inadvertent, while the reports in the British media hardly reflected policy. But the fact that both men, members of the small group of official "secret-guardians," slipped up at such a short interval between each other and at a time when the issue is at its most sensitive, proves how hard it is to preserve nuclear ambiguity. It's not simply the fact that Israel's standard response that it "won't be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region" sounds hopelessly outdated when you can see satellite photos on foreign Web sites of what, according to foreign intelligence experts and nuclear scientists, are Israeli nuclear missile launching sites. It's also problematic at the subconscious level. A couple of decades ago, most Israelis were genuinely in the dark. They didn't know whether the county had the bomb or not. They just believed that we were in good hands. It wasn't only Mordechai Vanunu's revelations in the Sunday Times (which the Israeli newspapers subsequently published despite prime minister Shimon Peres's pleas) that changed this. It was a growing awareness of the world media and a general disinclination to believe the official line that things were being taken care of. Israelis wanted to know what was really going on and they began believing what was published abroad. The cat-and-mouse game between the censor's office and the local media, which allowed anything to be written or broadcast as long as it was "according to foreign sources," contributed greatly to this. No Israelis have illusions anymore. They realize the terrible responsibility, even if the great majority are still in the dark regarding the details. The irony today is that while Israelis are certain their country owns a nuclear option and talk about it freely, only those who know the entire truth are forbidden to speak. How ambiguous is that?