the 90th minute

Until September 2007, when my oldest daughter was born, this blog covered daily life and politics in Israel, as well as Hebrew-English linguistic issues, from the perspective of an American-raised journalist and translator living in Israel. Now it mostly serves as the SmunchMonk&Bear news agency, a portal into the bizarre universe of the little people. Read more at:

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Nukes? What nukes?

Israeli and international media have been feasting this week on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s achievement of adding a whole new layer of meaning to the concept of nuclear ambiguity.

The policy has long meant that Israel will neither confirm nor deny having nuclear weapons – preferring to harvest the benefits of a deterrence wrought by the rest of the world’s decades-long knowledge of the country’s capabilities while avoiding the pitfalls of possible inspections, censure, sanctions or loss of financial aid. But the recent hullabaloo has, for some, narrowed the focus; the latest ambiguity under discussion is not about Israel's status as a nuclear power but about what, if anything, Olmert intended to say about it.

In a prerecorded interview on German TV that was broadcast Monday, during his visit there, Olmert said that the United States, France, Britain and Russia had nuclear weapons, and were "civilized countries that do not threaten the foundations of the world."

Then came the clincher that has set the media and political hounds growling with excitement: "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?"

Many interpreted this list as putting Israel in the same league as other nuclear countries, but Olmert’s people said the list was actually one of civilized countries, whose nuclear capability or (wink, wink) lack thereof is incidental to the point he was making. Israeli politicians who would have been happy to see Olmert step down no matter what he said or implied about Israel’s nuclear power called for Olmert to step down because of what he said or implied about Israel’s nuclear power. And some questioned whether the prime minister’s slip of the tongue (which is quite different from the justice minister’s slip of the tongue, but that’s another story entirely) was really an accidental and unfortunate occurrence or whether it was his way of warning Iran.

I found it interesting to see how different media characterized the remarks in their articles on Olmert’s comment: Was it a slip or an admission? Did he announce that Israel has nuclear weapons or appear to imply it?

Some publications, like The New York Times, played it safe, sticking with words like “seem” and “appear.”

A NYT article published Tuesday was headlined, “In a Slip, Israel's Leader Seems to Confirm Its Nuclear Arsenal,” and began by saying: “Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, appeared to acknowledge inadvertently during a TV interview shown Monday that Israel has nuclear weapons, an issue on which the Jewish state has sought to maintain ambiguity for decades.”

Possibly following Olmert’s lead, the Guardian threw caution to the wind in a second-day story published Tuesday on what it called the “nuclear gaffe,” in which it said flat-out that Olmert was under fire for having “accidentally acknowledged for the first time that Israel had nuclear weapons.” Not until the 10th paragraph does the story mention that Olmert’s spokeswoman denied that his comments “mean Israel possessed or wanted to acquire nuclear weapons.”

The most striking set of articles I found came from Reuters, which may or may not have undergone a change of heart in its take on the story.

In a Monday article that appeared on the Washington Post Web site under the headline “Olmert admits Israel has nuclear weapons,” Reuters wrote: “Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, lifting the veil over Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity, appeared in an interview broadcast on Monday to admit that the Jewish state had atomic weapons.”

As if there were not enough of it going around in this little nuclear contretemps, this sentence suffers from an ambiguity all its own: the word “appeared” can refer to Olmert’s having appeared on TV (as I read it at first) or as a qualifier that – were it not separated by an intervening reference to the broadcast – would read “appeared to admit.”

By Tuesday, though, Reuters had (paradoxically, perhaps) clarified its position by injecting greater uncertainty, writing: “Prime Minister Ehud Olmert triggered a domestic firestorm on Tuesday after publicly implying, in an apparent reversal of a decades-old secrecy policy, that Israel has the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal.” Note the double hedge of “implying” and “apparent” (not “appearing,” this time).

And finally, the reward for best sense of humor goes to The Associated Press, for a piece about the response to Olmert’s comments that was slugged “Israel-Nuclear Fallout.” Kind of scary at first glance, but, hey, it made me laugh.

Crossposted to Israelity.

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