An Israeli minister yesterday urged silence on the country's nuclear capability one day after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's remark placing the Jewish state among the world's nuclear powers.
"I would suggest that all those who want to talk about the issue, for God's sake and for the sake of Israel's security, stop it," Infrastructure Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer told army radio.
Olmert appeared to acknowledge inadvertently during a TV interview shown on Monday that Israel has nuclear weapons, an issue on which the Jewish state has sought to maintain ambiguity for decades.
However, Olmert's aides said later that there was no change in Israel's policy of refusing to confirm or deny if it has nuclear weapons.
In an interview with the N24 cable news channel in Germany, Olmert was asked about Iran's nuclear program. He gave a lengthy response, saying the US, France, Britain and Russia had nuclear weapons, and were "civilized countries that do not threaten the foundations of the world."
Olmert then added: "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?"
The interview took place on Friday in Israel but was shown on Monday, timed to coincide with Olmert's visit to Germany.
"Israel's policy has not changed," Olmert's spokeswoman, Miri Eisin, said by telephone.
The prime minister and other officials have consistently said that Israel would certainly not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
For decades, Israel has refused to say whether it has nuclear weapons despite the seemingly universal belief that it possesses them.
While Israel prefers not to discuss the nuclear issue at all, the policy of intentional ambiguity is seen as a way of creating a deterrent, without making this an explicit policy.
This position could nevertheless invite sanctions or encourage an arms race in the Middle East.
"Israel's ambiguity policy has become so anachronistic," said Avner Cohen, an Israeli who has written about Israel's nuclear program.
"The world has taken Israel as a nuclear weapons state for about 40 years," said Cohen, a senior research fellow at the University of Maryland and the author of Israel and the Bomb.
He said in the 1970s, an Israeli president, Ephraim Katzir, caused a stir when he accidentally acknowledged that Israel had nuclear capability.
"An older generation of leaders had a real taboo about talking about this," Cohen said. But Olmert, he added, is of a younger generation that "treats the issue much more normally. The world doesn't need any official confirmation at this point."
Last week, Robert Gates also seemed to acknowledge an Israeli nuclear arsenal, at his Senate confirmation hearing to be secretary of defense.
Of Iran, he said, "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."
Meanwhile, opposition politicians in Israel yesterday rounded on Olmert, who has seen his personal approval rating plummet since the summer war against Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas.
"This causes great harm to Israel. We are in the midst of a huge [diplomatic] onslaught against Iran's attempts to make a nuclear bomb," former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, a member of the right-wing Likud party, said on Army Radio.
"We always face the same question which our enemies ask: `Why is Israel allowed to [have a bomb] and not Iran?'"