updated 7/6/2004 5:44:14 PM ET 2004-07-06T21:44:14

The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said Tuesday that he had no “magic wand” to persuade Israel to at least tacitly acknowledge it has atomic bombs or the means to make them.

Mohamed ElBaradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, came to Israel to pitch for a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Israel is believed to be the only country in the region with nuclear missiles ready to launch; experts say it may have as many as 300 warheads and can quickly build more.

But ElBaradei said he had low expectations of getting Israel to stray from its secretive nuclear policy. Israel does not comment on its nuclear capabilities, and its leaders have said they see no reason to change that policy.

“I have the power of recommending, of advising, and I have no reason to believe that I will not have an open and frank discussion,” ElBaradei said. “We need to strengthen security in the Middle East, and I think everybody understands that.”

ElBaradei has said Israel should start talking seriously about a Middle East free of nuclear arms whether or not it acknowledges that it has them. Earlier this year, he condemned the imbalance in the region because of “Israel sitting on nuclear weapons.”

Sharon vows no change in policy
Tuesday, Israel Army Radio rebroadcast comments Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made in May in which he said he would not change the country’s policy.

“I don’t know what he [ElBaradei] is coming to see. Israel has to hold in its hand all the elements of power necessary to protect itself, by itself,” Sharon said. “Our nuclear policy has proven itself and will continue.”

Israel’s doctrine of “nuclear ambiguity” is meant to deter its enemies while denying them the rationale for developing nuclear weapons.

In 1995, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres declared, “Give me peace, and we will give up the atom. If we achieve regional peace, I think we can make the Middle East free of any nuclear threat.”

Searching for peace

The evidence behind the existence of an Israeli arsenal is overwhelming, much of it based on details and pictures leaked in 1986 by nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, as well as research and statements made by Israeli leaders.

Vanunu was freed in April after spending 18 years in prison for espionage and treason for divulging that information.

Sharon planned to take ElBaradei on a helicopter trip Wednesday, the IAEA said. Israel often takes dignitaries on such tours to illustrate the country’s small size and security concerns.

However, ElBaradei was not expected to have access to Israel’s two nuclear reactors: the main facility near Dimona in the southern Negev Desert and the smaller Nahal Sorek near Jerusalem.

Vanunu urged ElBaradei to persuade Israeli leaders to allow him into the Dimona plant.

“Now, after 18 years that my revelation has gone to all the world and I come out of prison and report to all the world, he, too, must go and demand to be inside Dimona and to report to IAEA and to all the world,” Vanunu said on Israel’s Channel One TV.

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 curbs on its nuclear activities.

ElBaradei, an Egyptian, said he hoped to persuade Israeli leaders to back the treaty by signing a separate protocol with the IAEA.

“I’d like to see Israel supporting the Nonproliferation Treaty. I’d like to see the beginning of a dialogue on how a ... nuclear security free zone could look,” ElBaradei said. “If I get the parties closer on the need for a dialogue, I think I’ll be successful.”

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell met with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom. Powell pointed to Iran as the main security problem in the region and renewed his demand for international pressure on Iran to stop developing nuclear weapons.

Shalom repeated concerns he registered last week with national security adviser Condoleezza Rice about Iran’s missile program, saying Israel and Europe could be targeted if the program was left unchecked.

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