Israelis piqued by Gates nuclear "confirmation"
By Dan Williams, 7 Dec 2006 Source: Reuters
JERUSALEM, Dec 7 (Reuters) – Robert Gates, the incoming U.S. secretary of defense, won plaudits in Washington this week for his candour on the Iraq war.
Some Israelis were less pleased, however, to hear Gates mention with equal frankness what U.S. administrations have long avoided saying 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 mentioned 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 remark led Israeli news bulletins. State-run radio suggested Gates may have breached a U.S. "don't ask, don't tell" policy that dates back to the late 1960s.
"It's quite unprecedented," a retired Israeli diplomat told Reuters on Thursday when asked about Gates's testimony. "I can only assume he has yet to get to grips with the understandings that exist between us and the Americans."
According to recently declassifed 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 pressing its ally to 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.
This sanctioned reticence is a major irritant for Arabs and Iran, which see a double-standard in U.S. policy in the region.
By not declaring itself to be nuclear armed, Israel also skirts a U.S. 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.
Though Gates was appointed as part of a move by U.S. President George W. Bush to revitalise 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 U.S. policy on discussing Israel and its nuclear capability," said Stewart Tuttle, spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv.
Shimon Peres, who helped found Israel's main atomic reactor in the 1950s, officially for civilian use, and is now senior 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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