Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

December 31, 2006

Was it a Slip, or a Slap?

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 5:02 pm

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.



  1. Jihad-infused societies perceive our reluctance to be incited as cowardice.

    The U.S. and Soviet Union did not blatantly threaten each other with annialation
    (Not even during the cuban Missile Crisis) because it would have seemed “crazy”.
    But both sides had very little doubt what would happen if one side attacked the other.
    We were speaking the same language to each other, and that came easy because our
    societies had similar cultural values and religious beliefs.

    But our reluctance to throw the Iranian regime’s words back at them is creating
    a large gap of misunderstanding. We are inviting an attack with our lack of response,
    which is percieved as fear.

    Comment by David Parsons — December 31, 2006 @ 9:14 pm | Reply

  2. RR —

    You write: “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.”

    Unless it contained Mecca, Medina, Qom and a dozen other *primarily religious* sites, would it be effective? (Isn’t there an Islamist nomenklatura?)

    OTOH, if it did include such sites, wouldn’t it then be thought a sufficient provocation for an “Islamic pre-emption?” (In the eyes of bien-pensant Europeans, for example.)

    I don’t pretend to have an answer to this. But I don’t see how a “leaked list” — something that couldn’t be authenticated — would serve any useful purpose. What am I missing?

    Comment by Country Boy — December 31, 2006 @ 10:40 pm | Reply

  3. I try to understand the problem through thinking about the following ‘law’: as our weapons become more terrible, our enemies become more lunatic.

    We are now sufficiently powerful in the methods and materials of war that traditional potential enemies, the larger nation states, while they may poke and prod, and enjoy our occasional minor discomforts, do not want to get into a full-scale, industrial war with us. Only the lunatics still want to.

    If this developmental view is correct, then as we become ever more powerful, all but the most crazy will select themselves out of of the set of people who want to go to war with us. So, if we calm Admadinejad down, his replacement will be crazier.

    What can work against such historical forces? If anything can, I think it is George Bush’s instinct to democratize the hellholes. The only alternative is not just to threaten the lunatics, but to kill them, because they don’t seem to be scared by our threats.

    Comment by Patrick Brown — January 1, 2007 @ 11:32 am | Reply

  4. The problem unaddressed in the fine article is “fairness” — many folks think it is somehow unfair that Israel has(?!) the bomb, but other Arab countries don’t.

    And it IS unfair, as being born to a loving family gives such children an unfair advantage over those whose parents are unloving, or even crazy (enough to want the children to become suicide killers).

    Such criticisms are too much “game playing” oriented. Israel’s existence is not a game, fair or otherwise.

    I recently began to think that the USA should offer to evacuate all Jews from Israel, since realistic retaliation of a single nuke attack, (which I mostly agree with), is yet immoral. Fight or Flee — maybe the Israeli Jews should flee?

    Or, maybe the USA and Europe should be offering resettlement to Palestinain women, and get all the Palestinian mothers who love their children a safe American home; perhaps near the border with Mexico where there is a lot of experience with foreign culture.

    Finally, maybe Israel should be on the lookout for a reason to invade and institute regime change in Syria, so as to cut off the easy supply to Hezbollah. Unfortunately, democracy in Syria would likely result in another fanatic anti-Jew Muslim state.

    All aid into the region should be going directly to businesses to create job, and NOT to any gov’ts. But solving Israeli-Palestinian problems is too slow to stop Iran’s winking, nodding progress towards nukes.

    Comment by Tom Grey — January 1, 2007 @ 8:57 pm | Reply

  5. off topic but up alley:

    Iran: Hitler was a Jew
    Advisor to President Ahmadinejad claims Nazi leader was Jew who conspired with USSR and Britain to establish Jewish state,7340,L-3347309,00.html

    Comment by Shmuel — January 2, 2007 @ 6:56 am | Reply

  6. 20-plus years ago i took a total of four courses from Lou Beres (note spelling of his last name if you’re looking up more of his writing). What made me keep going back for more of his teaching was how the classes, pretty much all in international affairs, was focused on trying to create models of a possible, desireable, future world. His critique of much political discourse of the day (late Carter, proto Reagan) was that it was too focused on immediate events in and of themselves or idealized and unlikeley futures.

    The best grade i ever got from him was when i wrote a “world order options” paper where i posited a “small” nuclear exchange as necessary to a better world structure, because i couldn’t see any other way to get there other than a long, tense build up to a major, globally catastrophic event. There was no evidence in the years since Westphalia/1648 when nation-states were proactive versus a major threat, internal or external, but reactive — so i posited cautious proliferation and a nuclear detonation as necessary to major power consensus and force control, saying (in 1982) it was too long since Hiroshima for politicians to really get it on their own anymore.

    Beres gave me an A+, noting, “i hope you’re wrong, but i fear you aren’t.”

    For what it’s worth. Lou is a very smart, practical, realistic guy, and he isn’t going to let Israel vanish in a cloud of obsequious caution.

    Thanks for pointing out the typo which I will correct. Glad to hear confirmation of my impression of him

    Comment by Jeff Gill — January 2, 2007 @ 9:12 am | Reply

  7. I think of what might have happened if a nation state with vision had taken the life of one man in 1939 or even 1941. Perhaps the time has come to move toward a doctrine of “Individual Responsibility” where the incitement to mass murder is enough to justify state sanctioned assassination

    Comment by Yoel Ben-Avraham — January 4, 2007 @ 8:34 am | Reply

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