Israel Breaks Taboo on Nuclear Weapons Debate

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Israel broke a long-standing taboo when Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg permitted debate on its nuclear policy for the first time in the Knesset, but the session quickly ended after it degenerated into a shouting match.

Arab Knesset Member Issam Mahoul from the Hadash Communist Party forced the issue onto the agenda by appealing to the Supreme Court. Burg then decided to allow the issued to be debated.

"The problem is we were always quiet about this," Mahoul told "In addition there's a need to put an end to the story of ambiguity [and] get rid of the wall of silence," he said.

Israel has always insisted that it will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the region. Although Israel is believed to have nuclear capabilities, it has never officially admitted this.

In 1986, a published report quoted Israeli scientist Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed details about Israel's nuclear program. Vanunu was later tried for the offense and jailed.

Arab Knesset Member Mahoul charged that Israel has between 200 and 300 nuclear bombs. His figures were challenged during the Knesset debate by another member, but Mahoul responded by saying that Israel is a "great stockpiler of atomic, biological and chemical weapons that are the basis of the nuclear weapons race in the Middle East."

Four Arab Knesset Members were removed from the session after they interrupted Minister Haim Ramon, and Likud and Shas Members protested the discussion by leaving the session. Coalition Chairman Ophir Pines-Paz charged that Mahoul had "harmed state security and carried out an irresponsible act that serves Israel's greatest enemies."

Ramon, the liason between the government and Knesset, said "Israel supports the principle of nuclear nonproliferation, but at the same time the Nuclear Nonproliferations Treaty, with all its global importance, does not provide a fitting solution for our region as proved in the case of Iran and proved in the case of Iraq."

Although Mahoul came under attack in the stormy 45-minute session, he said it was a "historic debate" even though it had become too "hysterical."

Mahoul, who said he is pushing for a denuclearization of the entire Mideast, said the way to get rid of the nuclear threat is through negotiations, but he had no answer about how that could be accomplished with countries such as Iran and Iraq, which refuse to even recognize Israel.

As for Mahoul's accusations that Ramon was trying to keep secrets from the Israeli people, Ramon said it is Israel's right to have security secrets.

"We cannot expose publicly the Israeli top-secret security policy. Its impossible," Ramon said in a radio interview, adding that no country in the world reveals its secrets.

"We are concerned that in this region [there's] a potential risk of unconventional weapons that will be part of the arsenal of weapons of Iran and Iraq and maybe other countries as well and this is a potential risk to the State of Israel," Ramon said. "We have to defend [ourselves]... and we are not going to expose to our enemies the way we are going to defend [ourselves]."