Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Madrid, March 16, 2010
Defence Minister Ehud Barak in Madrid, March 16, 2010 Photo by Reuters
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Despite recent international pressure pressure on the Netanyahu government to  answer claims it holds atomic weapons, there is no real threat to Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Monday.

"I do not think there is a real or significant danger to Israel's traditional stance of nuclear ambiguity," Barak told the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied having nuclear arms. But the country is widely believed  to have begun a weapons program in the 1950s and analysts estimate that Israel now has as many as 200 atomic warheads.

In recent weeks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced mounting calls to reveal details of Israel's presumed nuclear capabilties following a campaign led by Egypt at the United Nations. U.S. President Barack Obama has also joined calls to establish the Middle East as a 'nuclear-free zone'.

Barak warned that Israel's international reputation faced "attrition" in the long term. But he voiced confidence that the recent focus on Israel had not distracted the United States from the nuclear threat posed by Iran, which Israel and the West accuse of using a civilian nuclear program to mask designs on a bomb.

The U.S. had altered its approach to the Iranian nuclear threat and was now much more determined to face down the Iranians, the defense minister said.

"The [U.S.] administration is steadfast in preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons," he said. "They are much more active."

The Labor party minister was also optimistic over security on Israel's northern border, saying there was no reason to predict another conflict with Hezbollah this summer, but that Israel was well prepared for one. Israel fought a month-long war with the militant group in 2006.

"Israel is strong and has strong deterrent capability," Barak said. "If we are forced, the IDF will respond to any danger."

Barak also mentioned the renewal of indirect peace negotiations with the Palestinians, saying that U.S.-mediated 'proximity' talks, which began Saturday,  would not lead to a breakthrough and that direct talks must be the next step.

"Israel must present a far-reaching political initiative in order to bring about progress with the Palestinians," he said.