Analysis The Triumph of Ambiguity

More than any other person, Mordechai Vanunu managed to pierce the cloud of "ambiguity" covering Israel's nuclear program. The information he relayed to the Sunday Times in 1986 was, and remains, the most detailed description of the Dimona plant.

Vanunu's revelations quenched the curiosity of Israelis and foreigners alike. And yet Vanunu completely failed to attain his political objective, assuming his intention was to stir an international outcry that would culminate in demands that Israel shut down its operations in Dimona, and destroy the plant's products. As he walks out of Shikma prison today, Israel's nuclear program enjoys an unprecedented level of international legitimacy.

There was a time when American officials would squirm uncomfortably when accusations of "double standards" were leveled against them. Why, they would be asked, does the U.S. pressure Arab states and Iran to refrain from attempts to develop nuclear capacities, whereas it turns a blind eye to Israel's program?

Times have changed. Today, leaders in the West openly justify Israel's nuclear program, depicting it as an insurance policy taken out by a small, vulnerable country whose hostile neighbors constantly threaten to destroy it.

The last wave of claims against Israel's nuclear program crested after Libya announced in December 2003 that it was abandoning its unconventional weapons program. Not surprisingly, Egypt and Syria demanded that Israel come next, and be forced to dismantle its nuclear weapon facilities.

The Syrian and Egyptian demands were roundly rejected. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told parliament: "The Arabs should acknowledge Israel's right to exist at internationally recognized borders, and they should stop threatening its existence. These [threats] are, frankly, what put Israel in its own unique security category."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was yet more blunt. "Israel is a small country, and it is located in a region in which many threaten to throw it in the sea. Israel prefers not to be thrown into the sea, and so it has organized itself accordingly."

In his letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week, U.S. President George Bush said his country would "preserve and strengthen" Israel's ability to "deter and defend itself" against any threat. This assurance reiterated declarations made by president Bill Clinton to prime ministers Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Israeli officials regarded Bush's comments as a clear hint that the U.S. believes Israel should be able to maintain its nuclear program.