Olmert urged to quit after letting slip what everyone knows: Israel is a nuclear power


By Tim Butcher and Kate Connolly
Last Updated: 2:35am GMT 13/12/2006

Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, faced calls from opposition MPs to resign yesterday after he let slip during a television interview that his country had nuclear weapons.

While Israel's status as a nuclear power since the 1960s is widely known, its political and military leaders have traditionally refused to confirm or deny they have nuclear weapons.

Mr Olmert deviated from that script when he put Israel in the category of nuclear powers during a question and answer session about Iran. "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map," he said on German television. "Can you say that this is the same level, when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as France, America, Russia and Israel?"

The comments were taken by some as proof that he wanted to send a signal to Iran as it seeks to acquire nuclear weapons. But, with all governments in the region likely to be already aware of Israel's nuclear capability, the most plausible explanation was that he had simply made an error.

The gaffe overshadowed Mr Olmert's two-day visit to Germany and he became testy when asked about the issue during a press conference with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.

He reverted to the form of words used by Israeli government officials for decades when discussing the nuclear question when he said: "Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the region."

Yuval Steinitz, an opposition MP from the Right-wing Likud party, said Mr Olmert should resign. "His unfortunate statement in Germany harms Israel's 50-year policy of ambiguity," he said. Yossi Beilin, head of the Left-wing Meretz movement, said: "The amazing statement regarding nuclear capability indicates a lack of caution bordering on irresponsibility and elicits a great doubt whether this person is fit to serve as prime minister."