updated 4/28/2004 7:27:33 AM ET 2004-04-28T11:27:33

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency is set to travel to Israel this summer, an agency spokeswoman said Tuesday.

The exact date and agenda for Mohamed ElBaradei’s trip has not yet been set, said Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Naturally, he would intend to use such a trip to consult on his mandate ... to promote nonproliferation and a nuclear weapon-free zone in the Middle East, as well as to discuss bilateral cooperation in nuclear sciences and applications,” she said.

Though Israel is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty — which gives the IAEA powers to inspect nuclear programs — it is a member of the agency. ElBaradei, the agency’s director-general, visited Israel six years ago.

Gabriella Gafni, Israel’s permanent representative to the IAEA, described the visit as “routine.”

“He has an open invitation from us for some time now. The date has not been finalized, nor the agenda,” Gafni said. “He is very welcome to come and visit us.”

'Imbalance in the region'
Israel neither confirms nor denies it has nuclear weapons, and refuses to discuss such allegations. International experts estimate the country holds 200 or more weapons.

A week ago, Israeli authorities freed Mordechai Vanunu, who spent nearly 18 years in prison for leaking details and pictures of Israel’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

Last Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that the United States recognizes that Israel needs a credible deterrent to Iran and other hostile countries.

“They understand that Israel’s existence is still in danger,” Sharon told Israel’s Channel One TV.

ElBaradei has long called for talks on eliminating weapons of mass destruction from the volatile Middle East.

In a lecture delivered earlier this month in Egypt, ElBaradei condemned “this imbalance in the region (with) Israel sitting on nuclear weapons and everybody else trying to stick to the Nonproliferation Treaty.”

However, he said Israel was unlikely to readily change its stance.

“Nuclear deterrence or nuclear weapons (are) deeply ingrained in the Israeli psychology,” ElBaradei said.

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