Loose lips and nuclear warships

Furor over PM's remarks reflects public fear of what else he might let slip.

olmert agape 298.88 (photo credit: AP)
olmert agape 298.88
(photo credit: AP)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Berlin Tuesday - at least in the eyes of the Israeli press - was overshadowed by one sentence he said in a German television interview on Monday regarding Israel's alleged nuclear capabilities. "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map, can you say this is the same level when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons as America, France, Israel, Russia?" the prime minister told German television network SAT 1, setting off a storm of protest in Israel. Whether this sentence amounted to Israel's formal acknowledgement that it has joined the elite club of nations with nuclear arms is open to debate. But one thing is certain: for the second time in a month, Olmert and his advisers were forced to scramble and explain that he was not understood correctly; that he didn't mean what so many thought they had heard; and that the fault was not in the words, but rather in their faulty interpretation. The first time this happened was two weeks ago when Olmert met a group of high school students in the Knesset and let slip that Israel was not sure that captive soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were still alive. That remark caused a furor, and Olmert - and his spokesmen - were forced to clarify endlessly that Israel does indeed believe the two men were alive. Olmert, who held a press conference for the Israeli and German press after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and then afterward held a more extensive briefing with the Israeli press, must have responded 10 times that Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity remains the same, or, as he put it, "Israel has said repeatedly that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East, and this policy has not changed." On the face of it, what Olmert said on both occasions, regarding Goldwasser and Regev and regarding Israel and the bomb, were not exactly startling revelations. Many people have questioned whether Regev and Goldwasser are still alive since their kidnapping in July, and still more have come to the conclusion that Israel is a member of the nuclear club. Yet it is one thing for people to speculate about these matters around the water cooler at work, or around the Shabbat table at home, and quite another for the prime minister to be talking and appear to have let something slip. Olmert was correct in telling reporters Tuesday that there was a domestic political context to the furor his comments caused, and that both the Right and the Left were waiting for anything that smacked of a miscue to pounce on. But still, the tempest Olmert's comments caused in Israel - a tempest not echoed in the German or international media - seemed due less to the content of what he said, and more that he actually said anything at all. Coupled with his comments about the soldiers, Olmert's remarks about the nukes didn't reveal as much about Israel's nuclear potential as they uncovered a subliminal fear among certain segments of the public that if this was the type of remark Olmert let slip today, then what might tomorrow bring?