Mon, Jul 05, 2004 - Page 6 News List

IAEA chief's Israel mission called long shot

AFP , VIENNA

UN atomic energy agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei will head for Israel tomorrow to pitch for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, despite the Jewish state allegedly having up to 200 nuclear weapons.

Israel has a policy of "ambiguity" under which it neither confirms nor denies it has the bombs.

But ElBaradei, director general of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in Moscow last week that Israel should "clarify" its nuclear activities and start working toward ridding the Middle East of nuclear weapons.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky confirmed Saturday that these would be key topics on ElBaradei's visit tomorrow to Thursday. ElBaradei is to meet with Israeli energy officials as well as Cabinet ministers.

ElBaradei visits Israel after two other critical trips this year -- to Libya, which has disarmed its nuclear weapons programs, and to Iran.

ElBaradei's trip also follows the release from prison earlier this year of Israeli nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu, who says Israel should rid itself of nuclear weapons and open up to international inspection.

Arab countries that are members of the IAEA have complained that Israel is not being investigated at a time when countries like Iran are under intense scrutiny from the UN agency.

But Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg held out little hope for ElBaradei to make much progress.

Steinberg, from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said in a statement that Israel was not about to change its policy and sign on to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that mandates the IAEA to verify nuclear activities worldwide.

"There is no foundation for a change" since "the threat to Israel has not diminished much in the past five decades and hatred of Israel in the Arab and Muslim worlds remains intense," Steinberg said.

He said Israel was particularly worried about Iran, which the IAEA is investigating for allegedly secretly developing nuclear weapons.

Steinberg said Israel's giving up its "nuclear insurance policy ... would actually make the region more unstable" and that Israel would not accept a tradeoff "linking Iran's illegal nuclear program with pressure on Israel to abandon its deterrent."

He added that a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East "however distant, will become essentially unfeasible if Iran crosses the point of no return in its development of nuclear weapons."

ElBaradei said: "I think the message we need at the end of the day is to rid the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction. Israel agrees with that. They say that has to be in the context of a peace agreement."

ElBaradei said that rather than waiting there should be a "parallel dialogue on security and ... the peace process. I don't think you'll have peace without people understanding what sort of security structure you will have."

IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said it would be ElBaradei's first trip to Israel in six years and that he would be carrying out his mandate from the 137-member agency "to promote non-proliferation and a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East."

India and Pakistan, two other relatively new nuclear powers, have also refused to sign the NPT, while long-established nuclear states China, Britain, France, the United States and Russia are founding members of the treaty.

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