AMBIGUITY….On Monday, in response to a question on German TV, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said, “Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?” Stop the presses! The Israeli PM admitted that Israel has nuclear weapons!

Everyone has gone nuts over this, because Olmert’s slip of the tongue (or was it?!?) supposedly marks the end of Israel’s policy of “ambiguity” over whether it really has nuclear weapons. The LA Times runs down the reaction today, but as usual with stories like this it doesn’t really explain why the Israelis think this policy is so important. As best I can tell, it originated 40 years ago due to U.S. pressure, but since then it’s continued for no particularly compelling reason. In theory, it prevents Arab states from using Israel’s nuclear stockpile as an excuse to build one of their own, but since Israel’s nuclear arms are common knowledge and Arab states (and Iran) refer to them constantly, that hardly seems like a credible excuse. It’s not stopping a thing.

It’s one thing to have a policy of ambiguity over, say, what the U.S. would do if China attacked Taiwan. That policy actually serves a purpose: we’d almost certainly defend Taiwan if China invaded, but refraining from saying so keeps China mollified and sends a message to Taiwan that they should be prepared to take the consequences if they do something gratuitously provocative. (At least, that’s the theory.)

But Israel’s nuclear program? I don’t get it. I suppose you can always make the case that “now is not the right time to inflame things” by fessing up, but that’s not especially convincing. So what’s the deal?

UPDATE: Via TTop in comments, Richard Beeson explains ambiguity this way in the London Times:

First, [Israel] wanted its enemies in the region to know that it had nuclear capability if threatened.

But it also wanted to keep the existence secret so that it did not fall foul of international action designed to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly strict US laws which could have jeopardised billions of dollars in annual aid.

Well, OK. But hasn’t our deal with India made that problem nonoperative?