Monday, December 11, 2006

Olmert Puts Foot in Mouth Again - Or Not?

(Olmert: "It's cool. I got it.")

Israeli PM Ehud Olmert sent shock waves through the Israeli political establishment when he publicly confirmed on German television that Israel has nuclear weapons. Or that is how it is being reported. This is what Olmert actually said:
We have never threatened any nation with annihilation. Iran, openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?
Israel's policy of "nuclear ambiguity" has been under the microscope again since Robert Gates's statements last week. The announcement by the incoming American Secretary of Defence raised eyebrows in Israel. It apparently came without advance warning to the Israelis and was accompanied by Gates's ominous admission that the U.S. would be unable to prevent an Iranian nuclear strike on Israel, should the Islamic Republic acquire nuclear weapons. In an earlier television appearance, Olmert had jokingly parried a question about Israel's own possession of nuclear weapons by referring the questioner to Secretary Gates. But Olmert reacted rather more seriously when asked a similar question on the SAT1/N24 channel (which, by the way, is owned by Haim Saban), resulting in the response cited above.

Israeli opposition politicians are up in arms over Olmert's alleged "slip of the tongue." Politicians from the far right to the far left called for his resignation. The ever-annoying MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud), who fancies himself to be the authority on Israel's national security dramatically referred to the PM's
"terrible statement made in Germany" which "undermines 50 years of Israel's policy of ambiguity." MK Yossi Beilin (Meretz) called into question Olmert's ability to serve as Prime Minister (Ha'aretz, Sueddeutsche).

We have previously criticized Olmert for opening his big mouth with his foot in it. But the PM's critics are the ones looking stupid now. First of all, the fact is that Olmert revealed no new information. When the American Secretary of Defence announces in public that Israel has nukes - seemingly as a justification for Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons - is it meaningful to talk about "nuclear ambiguity"? Hardly. Indeed, it seems to me that Olmert pulled a fast one on both the Iranians and the opposition parliamentarians, who are looking rather silly with their obsolete insistence on the policy of the past 50 years. As for the "denials" by Foreign Ministry spokespeople and aides to the PM - I would not take them seriously. They are meant to assuage the parliamentarians in the short term. The point was to send a message to the world.

Notice also who did not open his mouth in protest after Olmert's "gaffe" - Netanyahu. Perhaps we will hear from him in the coming days, but I have a feeling that Bibi would have been the first to take advantage of a political opportunity if he had thought that Olmert had made a mistake. I would not be surprised if he had been previously informed of the Israeli PM's "faux pas."

So how exactly does Olmert's announcement help Israel?

Until now, Olmert has kept relatively quiet on the international stage about the Iranian threat as well as about Israel's own defensive and offensive nuclear capabilities. The Europeans, the Russians, and the Chinese have been content to split the work to allow each party to do what it is best at: i.e., the Euros have done nothing, and the Russians and Chinese have blocked American efforts to advance serious sanctions against Iran. Meanwhile, the Iranians have made terrifying announcements at Ahmadinejad's leisure, with almost no consequences for the Islamic Republic. Now, Olmert has reclaimed the initiative. He's calling the Europeans out to reveal their true colors.

Let's drop the political correctness for a second. Olmert was 100% right in framing this as a battle between civilization and barbarism. The wonderful little Holocaust denial conference that Tehran is hosting at the moment provided a wonderful background to these remarks (the Sueddeutsche has a good report; see also Genats-Lehayim). This regime must not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. Olmert appealed to the Europe's moral conscience, just as he appealed to Germany's particular sense of moral responsibility in his talks with Merkel (see Sueddeutsche). The Europeans are now faced with some stark choices. They must decide whether to continue to equivocate and treat Israel as a pariah no more deserving of their sympathy than Iran, or to stop their relativistic moral games and come to Israel's aid. Germany and France must decide whether they really want to continue their lucrative business deals with the Iranians at the price of terrorizing Israel and threatening American troops in the Gulf. Should the international community (minus the U.S.) continue to treat Ahmadinejad as it treated Hitler before 1939, Israel will know what to do.

Iran, on the other hand, should consider itself duly warned.

1 comment:

zed said...

It's refreshing to see someone recognize that the "gaffe" was nothing of the sort. I tend to agree with your interpretation. And I am pretty much predisposed to Olmert-loathing.

As for Iran getting nuclear weapons, if that's what they want and if they have the technical capacity (neither of which should be taken for granted, by the way), there's not a whole lot--realistically--that anyone can do about it. Sad, but true.