Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 6 News List

ElBaradei readies his Israel pitch

TACIT ADMISSION The IAEA was to arrive in the Jewish state yesterday to ask the Israelis to be more up front than they have been on their nuclear weapons program


In his pitch for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, the head of the UN atomic watchdog agency is likely this week to press for at least tacit acknowledgment from Israel that it has such arms or the means to make them.

Israel does not directly comment on its nuclear capacity, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would not specify how its head, Mohamed ElBaradei, would push officials during his two-day visit to the Jewish state that was to start yesterday.

But ahead of the trip, ElBaradei has said that Israel should start talking seriously about a Middle East free of nuclear arms, whether or not it owns up to having them. Earlier this year, he condemned the imbalance caused in the Middle East because of "Israel sitting on nuclear weapons."

On the eve of ElBaradei's visit, IAEA spokesman Mark Gwoz-cecky linked it to the need "for a strategic dialogue at nuclear issues, aimed at building up ... mutual confidence and, in the long run, making the region free of weapons of mass destruction."

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was quoted on Tuesday as saying that Israel would not change its "no show, no tell" nuclear policy. ElBaradei's visit comes at a time of fears that Iran is secretly trying to develop such weapons

"I don't know what he is coming to see. Israel has to hold in its hand all the elements of power necessary to protect itself by itself," Sharon said on Israel's Army Radio hours before ElBaradei's visit. "Our nuclear policy has proven itself and will continue."

Reflecting Israel's continued policy of keeping the agency at arm's length, senior diplomats familiar with the Vienna-based IAEA said ElBaradei would not be visiting Dimona, the nuclear facility in the Negev Desert thought to be at the heart of Israel's weapons program.

ElBaradei was to meet Sharon and other senior officials.

Israeli analysts warned against even low expectations.

"There is no foundation for a change in Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity under present circumstances, and the topic is not on the agenda," wrote Gerald M. Steinberg, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Evidence that that Israel has nuclear arms is overwhelming, much of it based on details and pictures leaked in 1986 by Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, as well as other leaks, research and statements made by Israeli leaders.

"Give me peace, and we will give up the atom," declared former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres in 1995, when hopes for a Middle East settlement were still alive. "If we achieve regional peace, I think we can make the Middle East free of any nuclear threat."

Israel's doctrine of "nuclear ambiguity" -- never formally confirming or denying that it has such weapons -- is meant to keep the Islamic world from considering an annihilating attack while denying it the rationale for developing its own nuclear deterrent.

While the US accuses Iran and possibly Syria of interest in such weapons, Israel is believed to be far advanced and the only country in the region thought to have nuclear missiles ready to launch.

Still, Israel has left few footprints in developing any weapons program. And because it has resisted international pressure to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Israel does not formally have to declare itself as a weapons state or agree to any curbs on its nuclear activities.

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