Ron Rosenbaum

Was it a Slip, or a Slap?

I’ve been fascinated by the coverage of Ehud Olmert’s allegedly scandalous “slip of the tongue”. The one which, according to some reports marked an unofficial end of the unofficial policy of ambiguous “nuclear ambiguity” on Israel’s part.

For years Israel had maintained a policy of replying to questions about its possession of nuclear weapons with the same formulation: “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.”

Was it ambiguous in the sense that the word “introduce”: was ambiguous? Did it mean that Israel had the weapons but wouldn’t be the first to use (“introduce”?) them? Was the ambiguity designed to evade international and US non proliferation problems, when just about everyone knew, or thought they knew, that Israel did indeed have a nuclear arsenal for several decades?

Was there any truth to the rumor that Israel preserved the technical truthfulness of the official statement about “introducing” weapons by keeping its nuclear weapons in easy to assemble components, so that, in fact, until a state of alert it had no “weapons” as such, just parts of them which would–in case of alert–be “introduced” to each other.

And what about the stories that the weapons had been assembled at least three times: in 1967, 1973 and during the Scud attacks during the first Gulf War in 1991? Some estimates had Israel possessing upward of 200 nuclear weapons.

Seven types of ambiguity, clouds of ambiguity. But is it possible that ambiguity has outlived its usefulness?

That was the question behind the Olmert “slip of the tongue” furor. It may have been no accident that the “slip” took place on the eve of the Iranian Holocaust denial/promotion “conference” in the second week of December, 2006. It was treated in much of the Israeli and world press as a scandalous mistake by Olmert, abandoning Israel’s long tradition of “nuclear ambiguity” and admitting to possession of nuclear weapons. But it may have been deliberately designed to do just that. To remind the population of Iran that in their drive for nuclear weapons and its genocidal nuclear threats (see “my “Footnote 55” post) Iranian Islamic fundamentalist apocalyptic madmen were volunteering millions of non fundamentalists citizens lives for the involuntary martyrdom an attack on Israel or a nuclear threat to Israel might bring.

What Olmert said, when asked about Iranian nuclear ambitions was that Iran’s desire for a weapon must be considered in the light of the sort of outlaw, genocide threatening state it was: a state that incited to genocide, unlike other states such as France, the U.S., Russia and–here was the alleged “slip”–Israel.

He seemed to be admitting without ambiguity that Israel had nuclear weapons. The furor that followed saw the Israeli foreign ministry try to say the list of states Olmert had given that included Israel was just a list of more stable non- genocidal states, not a list a of nuclear states. But few believed that.

The initial assumption of almost all the media I saw was that this was an unintentional slip of the tongue. Some later analysts raised the possibility that Olmert had seized the occasion of the Holocaust deniers’ “conference” and the U.N. sanctions on nuclear enrichment to suggest that Israel was altering its strategic “doctrine” on the use of nuclear weapons. And what would that mean: if they were to change their policy with regard to admitting possession, would they change their doctrine with regard to first use and second strike?

Was it designed to keep Iran, keep the rest of the world guessing.

My more optimistic view is that it was deliberate, that it was a deliberate slip, a slap in the face of Iran. A statement that a nuclear armed nation was tired of hearing threats to “wipe it of the map” from ostensibly non nuclear states. That however euphemistic such statements might be interpreted, when combined with the language to be seen in the post below in “Footnote 55” (“nothing left on the ground”) they were not content to sit back and hope it was all metaphorical, just a policy proposal “wiping Israel off the map”.

A statement that hoped to knock some sense into the Iranian leadership that they were playing with fire with their nuclear ambitions and threats. One to awaken the world to the danger of a regional nuclear war in the Middle East getting out of control.

It reminded me of something I’d written about in my Harper’s piece on nuclear deterrence culture, the one reprinted in %%AMAZON=0060934468 The Secret Parts of Fortune%%. Something about what I called “the war of Kissinger’s footnote”. An illustration of the notional, virtual ways nuclear foreplay was conducted in the days of the Balance of Terror. In that case then Secretary of State Kissinger seemed to hint in a footnote to a prepared text of speech he delivered, that if the Soviet Union didn’t abandon plans for a first-strike capable nuclear force, the U.S. would move from a “ride out” strategy in case of a Soviet first strike to a “hair trigger” posture. In the former we were committed to wait until Soviet nukes landed on our missile silos etc before retaliating. If the Soviet Union changed its posture in the direction of first strike capability we move to a “hair trigger” or “launch on warning” posture, so attacks on our silos would find the missile there already launched. It was a policy that subverted the chances of a first strike succeeding but a policy that had a greater risk of starting an unintentional nuclear war.

The Kissinger footnote, after having been read by all and sundry was “withdrawn” by the State Department when questions were raised about it. But the ambiguity remained. That’s how the game is played. In the early stages. With conceptual moves, footnotes, slips of the tongue.

Let us hope the game remains in its “early stages”, because the game has now begun. Indeed a deterrence theorist, Louis Renes Beres, has explicitly called (in the December 27 issue of The Jewish Press for an unambiguous end to Israel’s nuclear ambiguity, to replace opacity with transparency whether Olmert made an accidental “slip of the tongue” or not.

He made the case that the changed circumstances brought out by Iranian genocidal threats and nuclear ambitions call for specificity to replace ambiguity. Israel should spell out to Iran the rest of the Muslim–and the Western world–just what might happen if Iran were to use nuclear devices against the State of Israel.

There must be a targeting option document so the targets know what is at stake with Iranian posturing. It would be hard to imagine a more explosive piece of paper.