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Israel Debates Nuclear Arms Program

February 2, 2000

JERUSALEM (AP) _ In a historic first, a reluctant Israeli parliament today debated the country’s nuclear weapons program in a 45-minute session that quickly escalated into a shouting match between Jewish and Arab legislators.

Arab legislator Issam Mahoul, who had appealed to the Supreme Court to force the debate, said Israel has hundreds of nuclear warheads. He demanded that Israel go public with its nuclear program and eventually dismantle it.

Cabinet Minister Haim Ramon said he could not respond in detail to Mahoul’s allegations. ``To do so would aid the enemy,″ Ramon told the plenum.

Lashing out at Mahoul, Ramon said the legislator was hurting Israel’s interests. ``Do you want us to tell Iran and Iraq exactly what we have and what we don’t have? It’s unheard of,″ Ramon said.

Israel’s policy of nuclear ambiguity has undergone a gradual change in recent years, with government officials inching closer and closer toward acknowledging that Israel has nuclear weapons.

Last year, Israel released a partial transcript, albeit heavily censored, of the closed-door trial of nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who is serving an 18-year prison term for treason.

In 1986, Vanunu handed The Sunday Times of London photographs from inside Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona in the Negev Desert. Based on the photographs, experts said Israel has the world’s sixth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, the father of Israel’s nuclear program, has said Israel built the reactor at Dimona as a deterrent that might prod the Arab world to sign peace treaties with the Jewish state.

Still, Parliament Speaker Avraham Burg was reluctant to permit the debate. Mahoul, a member of the Hadash Party, a left-wing faction, had appealed to the Supreme Court to force the discussion. Rather than permitting the court to rule, Burg allowed the debate to go ahead.

At the start of today’s session, about two dozen right-wing lawmakers walked out of the plenum in protest.

The debate quickly turned into a shouting match between Arab and Jewish legislators, and five Arab lawmakers were expelled for heckling.

Members of the Hadash faction accused the government of a coverup and said it was endangering the safety of Israel’s citizens. Eli Ben-Menachem, a legislator from Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s One Israel, angrily challenged Mahoul’s statistics.

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