By Dalia Shehori
Ha'aretz Correspondent and AP
February 3 2000
Angry words flew in the Knesset yesterday as the first-ever public debate of Israel's nuclear arsenal degenerated into an ugly confrontation between Arab MKs, who introduced the debate, and Jewish MKs, who accused them of harming the country's security.
A claim by Arab MK Issam Mahoul (Hadash) that Israel has up to 300 nuclear warheads sparked a walkout by most of the Jewish members.
Military censorship has always forbidden reports in the local media about Israel's nuclear arsenal. Mahoul's speech, broadcast live on television, gave Israelis their first opportunity to hear details from one of their own, though Israel's nuclear weapons program is a frequent subject in foreign publications.
The debate was raucous and bitter even by the standards of the unruly Knesset, and created a rare public split down ethnic lines, with Jewish MKs from all political backgrounds, including One Israel, opposing the Arab members.
Minister without Portfolio Haim Ramon responded to Mahoul by repeating Israel's well-known, vague nuclear policy statement, and denouncing Mahoul's premise that the public has the right to know. Ramon said Israel would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, a decades-old policy known as "ambiguity," implying that Israel has nuclear arms capability but not actual bombs.
Jewish MKs interrupted with catcalls as Mahoul, presenting his motion, declared: "All the world knows that Israel is a vast warehouse of atomic, biological and chemical weapons that serves as the anchor for the Middle East arms race." Some called him a spokesman for Arab terrorists. "You are committing a crime against Israeli Arabs today," shouted coalition chairman Ophir Pines-Paz (One Israel).
Undeterred, Mahoul went on to claim that Israel's three new German-built submarines "will be fitted with nuclear weapons" as a second-strike capability if Israel is the target of a nuclear strike, undermining the claim that its nuclear threat is a deterrent to attack. He warned that the nuclear stockpile is a hazard, turning "this little piece of territory into a nuclear garbage bin, poisoned and poisoning, that could send us all up in a mushroom cloud."
The Hadash MK claimed that Israel's vague policy statement had lost all credibility, pointing to the disclosures of Mordechai Vanunu, who worked at the Dimona nuclear reactor before relating Israel's nuclear weapons secrets to the London Sunday Times in 1986. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison for treason.
A dozen Israeli anti-nuclear weapons activists, invited by Hadash, sat in the gallery. One of them, Gideon Spiro, said the government's ambiguity policy was wearing thin. "The difference is that the same old lies are being told against the background of more transparency from the point of view of information that's available to us," he said.
Also watching was Ray Kipper of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where the United States designs nuclear weapons. Invited by the Israeli committee working to free Vanunu, he said "Vanunu doesn't know anything that would give any reason to keep him in prison."
In addition to the activists, two diplomats from the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv also observed the debate from the gallery. Egypt has been pressing for Israel to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and get rid of the weapons it has never admitted having.