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Analysis: Olmert's nuclear slip took over

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Germany Correspondent

BERLIN, Dec. 12 (UPI) -- The meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and German Chancellor Angela Merkel Tuesday in Berlin was overshadowed by what was interpreted as an Olmert concession that Israel has nuclear weapons.

Answering a question on Iran in an interview Monday evening with German news channel N24, Olmert included Israel in a list of some of the world's nuclear powers.

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"Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map," Olmert said. "Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?"

Olmert, however, earlier in the interview said that Israel "has always said it won't be first to bring nuclear power to the Middle East. This is our position and it hasn't changed." After being pierced by journalists' questions on the issue, he repeated that statement three times Tuesday in a joint news conference with Merkel, claiming his statement was taken out of context.

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"I was very clear on this," he said, adding that the discussion about a comment was "too long and exaggerated."

But at home, an already weak Olmert has sparked considerable outrage for his slip, with Likud politicians calling on him to resign, and others saying he had undermined Israel's foreign policy of the past 50 years.

Germany's deputy foreign minister, Gernot Erler, Tuesday in a radio interview called Olmert's comment "remarkable."

While security experts have long listed Israel as a nuclear power, observers are worried that any direct hint of Israeli nuclear weapons possession by an Israeli government official is used to justify an Arab nuclear arms race and could undermine the West's nuclear negotiations with Iran.

After both leaders had for roughly an hour discussed the Middle East and possible peace initiatives between Israel and Palestine, Merkel harshly denounced the Holocaust denial conference currently staged in Iran, and said Germany would do all it could to oppose such meetings.

The conference highlights how "dangerous Israel's situation is and the threat that Israel has to live with," she said. However, a military option to stop Iran's nuclear ambition was "not on the table."

Merkel also praised Olmert's recent efforts to revive peace talks with Palestinians, and said she would use Germany's European Union presidency in the first half of 2007 to "accompany, activate and push forward" the Israeli-Arab peace process with the help of the Quartet on the Middle East consisting of the United States, United Nations, EU and Russia.

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A group of German experts has recently criticized Merkel for policies that are too Israel-friendly.

"A smooching course with Olmert won't help," Udo Steinbach, head of the German Institute for Middle East Studies, told the Hannover Neue Presse newspaper, adding that Israel had to be pressed to make concessions in the conflict with the Palestinians.

Steinbach is one of 25 intellectuals who last month published a manifesto in a German newspaper criticizing Germany's special relationship with Israel, which is based on the Holocaust.

The manifesto said Germany was not only responsible for Israel but also for the current situation of the Palestinian people.

While the German-Jewish relationship must be characterized by a "special restraint and special sensitiveness," friends had to be able to warn Israel of "mistakes, wrong decisions and wrong attitudes," the manifesto said, criticizing the Israeli use of cluster bombs in its air raids over Lebanon.

German officials have repeatedly distanced themselves from the paper, and in front of the press, hardly a differing view between Olmert and Merkel was visible.

Observers say Merkel, however, behind closed doors urged Israel to engage in talks with Syria to help stabilize the Middle East.

"Syria is simply there as a partner in the region ... It is a country in the region and it is important that we tell Syria what expectations we have of it," Merkel Tuesday told the foreign press corps in Berlin.

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In the later news conference with Olmert, she defended German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier's trip to Damascus -- the first one by a top German official in two years -- which Israeli officials had criticized.

"It was worth the attempt to find out whether there is room for movement of Syria's positions," Merkel said. However, the visit had sparked "no really positive signs," she added, visibly frustrated by the situation in Damascus.

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