Olmert: Iran Seeking to Develop Nuclear Bomb, 'Like America, France and Israel'

Israel's policy of ambiguity over its nuclear capabilities appears to have taken another step toward clarity following a statement made by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an interview on the German news channel N24. Olmert said that Israel should not be compared to Iran "when they are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia."

Olmert, who began an official visit to Germany yesterday said that "we have never threatened any nation with annihilation. 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?"

It is not clear whether this was a slip of the tongue on the part of Olmert or an intended statement.

Olmert's comments raised a storm among political figures in Israel.

Meretz chairman, MK Yossi Beilin said that "the fantastic statement of the Prime Minister on the nuclear issue reflects the carelessness ... and raises serious doubts whether this is a person worthy of serving as prime minister."

MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) called on Olmert to resign following "a series of problematic slips of the tongue in matters of defense."

According to Steinitz, "the terrible statement made in Germany undermines 50 years of Israel's policy of ambiguity, and joins the irresponsible slips of the tongue such as the announcement regarding the fate of the abducted soldiers in Lebanon. A prime minister who is unable to control his statements on sensitive matters of security, must quit."

MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) said that if Olmert's statements reflect an intentional change in policy then he must release "an clear announcement to the free world, that if you do not stop Iran, we will stop it at any cost."

Olmert's spokesman, Miri Eisen, who accompanied the prime minister on a trip to Germany yesterday, said he did not mean to say that Israel possessed or aspired to acquire nuclear weapons.

"No he wasn't saying anything like that," she said.

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said Olmert had meant to categorize the four nations as democracies to set them apart from Iran, and was not referring to their potential nuclear capabilities or aspirations.

Olmert's comments come a week after the incoming U.S. secretary of defense, Robert Gates, shocked observers when he said that Israel possessed nuclear arms, before a Congressional confirmation panel.

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Olmert in his hotel in Berlin, last night for a meeting that was described as "private."

A private meeting room was set up at the InterContinental, where Olmert and his aides are staying, for the meeting. The two leaders at first met in private and were then joined by aides.

The meeting between the two was not on the official schedule of the visit, and aides were quick to point out that it reflected the warm and special ties between the two leaders.

Prior to his departure for Germany yesterday, Olmert said that Germany should curtail its commercial ties with Iran and that the interests of private businessmen in Germany should not influence German policy regarding Iran.

Germany will assume the rotating European Union presidency on January 1, 2007, and aides to Olmert say that his close ties with Merkel will avail Israel of a friendly interlocutor in matters having to do with the Palestinians.

Olmert and Merkel will meet officially today at the Chancellery in Berlin. Prior to the meeting, Olmert will address a ceremony commemorating the victims of the Holocaust at Grunewald Station's Platform 17 in Berlin.

Olmert will also meet the German President, Horst Kohler, today and tomorrow will leave Germany for Italy where he is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Romano Prodi and the Pope, Benedict XVI.