updated 12/12/2003 1:18:59 PM ET 2003-12-12T18:18:59

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog said in an interview published Friday that he believes Israel has nuclear weapons and suggested Israel rid itself of the stockpile to promote Mideast peace.

Mohamed ElBaradei also revealed that he has toured some of Israel’s nuclear plants, although not the reactor in the southern town of Dimona where it is believed Israel produces arms.

ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, spoke to the Israeli daily Haaretz at his office in Vienna. The newspaper didn’t say when the interview was conducted.

ElBaradei said he has made several visits to Israel, most recently in the late 1990s when he met with Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then prime minister. The visits were not made public at the time.

The newspaper said ElBaradei came as a guest of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. ElBaradei has been a senior member of the International Atomic Energy Agency since 1984.

ElBaradei said his most recent contact with Israeli leaders was a meeting in Vienna with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. The newspaper did not say when the meeting occurred.

ElBaradei said he cannot confirm independently that Israel has nuclear arms, but that “we work on the assumption that Israel has nuclear capability.”

“I haven’t seen that Israel ever denied it,” he added.

Israeli government purposely vague on issue
Israel has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, aimed at stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, because it objects to international inspections.

Although widely assumed to have a stockpile of nuclear weapons, the government’s public policy is purposely vague, stating only that Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at the Dimona plant, gave pictures of his workplace to The Times of London. Based on the photographs, scientists at the time said Israel had the sixth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world. Vanunu is serving an 18-year term for treason and espionage.

In his talks with Israeli officials, ElBaradei said he “raised the regional situation and issues of nuclear weapons with them. The status quo is not one with which I feel comfortable.”

He told Haaretz that opening discussions on the nuclear issue does not prejudge their outcome but dialogue is essential to reduce tension.

“My fear is that without such a dialogue, there will be continued incentive for the region’s countries to develop weapons of mass destruction to match the Israeli arsenal,” he said.

“As I go around the Middle East there is a sensation of frustration and impotence. People say there is an asymmetrical situation and a situation that is not sustainable and that we cannot go on like this, and I agree.”

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