Dan Williams / Reuters – 2006-12-07 23:35:45
(December 7, 2006) — Robert Gates, the incoming US secretary of defense, won plaudits in Washington this week for his candor on the Iraq war.
Some Israelis were less pleased, however, to hear Gates mention with equal frankness what US administrations have long avoided uttering in public — that the Jewish state has the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal.
To be fair, it was pretty oblique.
During his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Gates speculated on why Iran might be seeking the means to build an atomic bomb. “They are surrounded by powers with nuclear weapons: Pakistan to their east, the Russians to the north, the Israelis to the west and us in the Persian Gulf,” he said.
The statement led Israeli news bulletins, with some pundits suggesting that former CIA chief Gates may have breached a US “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy dating back to the late 1960s.
“I haven’t a clue why Gates made those remarks,” Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of Israel’s security cabinet, said in a radio interview.
A retired Israeli diplomat, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, called the testimony “quite unprecedented” and added: “I can only assume he (Gates) has yet to get to grips with the understandings that exist between us and the Americans.”
According to recently declassified documents cited by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists magazine, under President Richard Nixon the United States knew Israel had developed nuclear weapons but opted against insisting that its ally come clean on the capability and accept international regulation.
Israel neither confirms nor denies having the bomb, as part of a “strategic ambiguity” policy that it says fends off numerically superior enemies while avoiding an arms race.
By not declaring itself to be nuclear armed, Israel also skirts a US ban on funding countries that proliferate weapons of mass destruction. It can thus enjoy more than $2 billion in annual military and other aid from Washington.
This sanctioned reticence is a major irritant for Arabs and Iran, which see a double-standard in US policy in the region.
Former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld was careful not to discuss the Israeli nuclear option explicitly. Pressed on it during a 2004 briefing, he said only that Israel had “arranged itself so it hasn’t been put in the sea” by its foes.
Though Gates replaces Rumsfeld as part of a move by President Bush to revitalize prospects for Iraq and a wider peace in the Middle East, no one has yet gone as far as to propose openly that Washington review Israel’s open secret.
“I am not aware of any change in US policy on discussing Israel and its nuclear capability,” said Stewart Tuttle, spokesman for the US embassy in Tel Aviv.
Shimon Peres, who helped found Israel’s main atomic reactor in the 1950s — officially for civilian use — and is now deputy to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, sounded similarly unperturbed.
“This announcement makes no fundamental difference,” he told Israel Radio.
“Whether or not Israel has nuclear weapons, the fact is that Israel is the only country threatened with destruction … Israel is not threatening any country. Weapons do not fire themselves, people fire them.”
He was apparently referring to arch-foe Iran, whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for the elimination of the “Zionist regime” but denied his country seeks nuclear arms.
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