Olmert back-pedals on the Israeli nuclear capability

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The Independent Online

The Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, has embarked on what looks like a damage-limitation exercise after making remarks interpreted as an acknowledgment that his country possesses nuclear weapons.

Mr Olmert, on a visit to Germany, triggered a political row - and calls for his resignation in Israel - when he was accused of breaking the official taboo on any admission of the existence of Israel's nuclear arsenal.

Three times yesterday, at a joint press conference with the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, Mr Olmert resorted to a well-tried formulation of Israel's "nuclear ambiguity" by declaring: "Israel won't be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East."

But the episode, officially the result of a "misunderstanding" of Mr Olmert's earlier words, left some analysts and politicians wondering whether it had been a more deliberate, if subliminal, attempt to ratchet up pressure on Iran to abandon its own nuclear ambitions by warning that Israel was capable of responding.

Mr Olmert had said on German television: "We have never threatened any nation with annihilation. Iran, openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?"

The Prime Minister's office insisted yesterday that Mr Olmert was listing "responsible" nations, not ones with nuclear weapons.

Israel has long refused to say whether it had nuclear weapons despite international recognition that it does. The "ambiguity" policy is seen here as allowing Israel to maintain its deterrent without stimulating a Middle East arms race.