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Nuclear watchdog won't pressure Israel

By Louis Charbonneau
July 6, 2004

TEL AVIV - U.N. nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei said on Tuesday he did not intend to pressure Israel but would try to encourage it to begin a dialogue to rid the Middle East of its nuclear weapons.

Under its policy of "strategic ambiguity", Israel neither admits nor denies having nuclear arms. But international experts believe Israel has from 100 to 200 warheads, based on estimates of the amount of plutonium its reactors have produced.

Israel is the only Middle East country not to have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This means it does not have to open up its nuclear programme to U.N. inspectors.

"I would like to see Israel supporting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," ElBaradei said, adding that he would like to see Israel sign an additional agreement committing it to disclose information on any potential nuclear-related exports.

But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) director said he did not intend to push the Jewish state on the nuclear issue. "It's not a question of pressure. I have no power to pressure," he said.

ElBaradei had wanted to get the Israelis to abandon their policy of ambiguity, Western diplomats said. But Israel says this is impossible at present given the continued hostility of the neighbouring Arab world and Iran.

"There are no signs of a policy change in Israel," said a diplomat close to the IAEA.

His spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said ElBaradei realised "the objectives are ambitious and are not going to be achieved overnight. But he is willing to invest the time necessary to make progress."

Nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, freed in April after an 18-year jail term for spilling Israel's nuclear secrets, urged ElBaradei to press for access to the reactor at the heart of the nuclear programme.


ElBaradei arrived in Israel on Tuesday to start his three-day visit during which he will tour Israel's atomic facilities -- except the reactor in the desert town of Dimona that independent experts believe has produced plutonium.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said in Washington Israel would cooperate with ElBaradei. "We are working ... with each other but the main problem is Iran," he said.

Israel and the United States accuse Iran of pursuing nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies. Libya and pre-war Iraq are also known to have tried unsuccessfully to build up atomic arsenals.

Top Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said hostility to Israel in the Middle East remained a reason not to sign the NPT.

In an editorial in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Steinberg said focusing some attention on Israel might undercut critics who accuse the IAEA of ignoring Israel's atomic bombs while putting undue pressure on Iran.

Former nuclear technician Vanunu, who took 60 pictures inside the Dimona reactor and gave them to Britain's Sunday Times newspaper in 1986, said Israel should make its reactor public.

"The Israeli government should change its policy and open the reactor," he said. "They should stop cheating the world, stop cheating Israeli citizens and stop cheating the Arab citizens."

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