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Israel has rare airing of nuclear arms issue

Israel's Parliament on Wednesday begrudgingly held its first public discussion in more than 35 years about the country's long-secret nuclear arms programs, and the usually loquacious body had so little to say that the debate was over in 52 minutes.

Parliament's speaker, Avraham Burg, tried to limit raucous catcalling in order, he said, "to put this subject behind us as quickly as possible." Indeed, despite verbal fire between Jewish and Israeli Arab legislators, the whole affair took less time than the debate about prostitution that preceded it.

Israel has a longstanding policy of "deliberate ambiguity" about its nuclear weapons, and politicians have helped keep the lid on any public conversation about what the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists calls the world's sixth-largest nuclear arsenal.

Burg allowed the discussion after an Israeli Arab legislator, Issam Makhul, petitioned the Supreme Court to request it. Makhul opened by declaring a "historic day" as rightist legislators marched out as a group.

"You're my enemy," one legislator, Zvi Hendel, spat at Makhul as he was leaving.

In the face of court cases challenging its secrecy, the government has started to modify its traditional refusal to say anything about its nuclear arms programs. In November the government allowed a newspaper to publish censored excerpts from the treason trial 12 years ago of a whistleblower on the nuclear industry, Mordechai Vanunu.

After the publication, Makhul pushed for an open airing of the issue in Parliament, whose sessions are broadcast on cable television. And some Israelis eagerly looked forward to what they imagined would be a "precedent-setting discussion of Israel's nuclear policies," as Danny Rubenstein, a senior writer for the newspaper Haaretz wrote.

But Rubenstein predicted correctly that Makhul and his Communist Party would "stand ostracized, facing the Parliament alone, thereby reinforcing the perception of the nuclear issue as a trivial curiosity that is of interest only to extremists."

Makhul began by attacking David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister. He criticized Ben-Gurion for establishing the code of silence by insisting from the start that Israel's nuclear reactor, in Dimona, was intended solely for "research and peaceful purposes."

"The whole world knows," Makhul said, "that Israel is a large warehouse of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons." He asserted that only Israeli citizens were kept in the dark about Israel's nuclear arsenal _ some 200 to 300 warheads, he said _ and conditions at the aging Dimona reactor.

Responding for the government, Cabinet minister Chaim Ramon stated what he said were the guiding principles of Israel's nuclear policy:

+ Israel will not be the first to use nuclear arms in the Mideast.

+ Israel, which has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, supports, in principle, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

+ Israel supports the creation of a region free of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles once there is a "proven peace over a sustained period of time."

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