Thursday, January 05, 2006

Olmert gets crash course in Israeli secrets


As surgeons battled to save Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday, his deputy received a quiet initiation into the Jewish state's most closely guarded secrets.

Following a procedure enacted only twice in Israel's history, Ehud Olmert met through the night with military and intelligence chiefs, learning how to give wartime orders of the highest risk and sensitivity, security sources said.

A career politician whose experience in uniform was limited to a junior officer's commission in Israeli infantry, Olmert, 60, lacks ex-general Sharon's broad command of defence issues.

A senior source said Olmert would have had to spend at least an hour each with the heads of Israel's foreign spy agency Mossad and its domestic counterpart the Shin Bet. He also met the Military Intelligence chief and Sharon's aide-de-camp.

The most critical matter discussed was Israel's nuclear capability. Although it has never denied or confirmed it, Israel is believed to have at least 200 atomic warheads, deployable on ballistic missiles or by long-range warplanes.

"There are procedures, chains of command, that only the prime minister knows about -- everything to do with the key strategic programme," the source said, using a standard euphemism for the Israeli nuclear option.

"In Olmert's case, I'm sure it was an eye-opener."

A leading historian, Avner Cohen, said that unlike the United States during the Cold War, Israel does not insist on its prime ministers keeping electronic deployment codes on hand so a nuclear strike can be ordered at short notice.

"Unless Iran has nuclear weapons, Israel is not yet in a situation where it would have to respond instantly" to a threat to its existence, Cohen told Reuters by telephone.

"Rather, Olmert needs to be familiarised not just with codes, but also with the bureaucracy, those who handle the strategic systems," he said.

Like the United States, Israel accuses arch-foe Iran of seeking nuclear weapons under the guise of a civilian energy programme, and says it could be a few years away from getting the bomb. Iran denies the accusations.

According to historians, the handover of an Israel prime minister's defence powers has happened only twice before: after Levi Eshkol fell ill in 1968, and following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

In Rabin's case, the successor was Shimon Peres, a former prime minister who had founded Israel's main nuclear reactor four decades earlier. So his briefing was likely to have been short.

"But there's always something new to learn, updates," Cohen said.