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Israel quiet on nuclear capabilities

The head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency  made no progress Wednesday in getting Israel to talk about its nuclear capabilities.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei at a Wednesday meeting in Jerusalem.Ronen Zvulun / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

The head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency got an airborne glimpse Wednesday of the reactor linked to Israel’s alleged weapons program, but made no progress in getting the Jewish state to talk about its nuclear capabilities.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, saw Israel’s Dimona reactor during a flight over the country during which he was briefed on Israel’s security needs.

In the face of overwhelming evidence that Israel has nuclear weapons, ElBaradei is keen for at least tacit acknowledgment as part of his efforts to restart talks on a Middle East free of arms of mass destruction that petered out in the mid 1990s.

But Israel has stuck to its policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” neither confirming nor denying it has nuclear weapons — which it sees as the best way to keep Islamic foes from attacking while denying them the rationale for seeking nuclear weapons.

On Wednesday, ElBaradei said Israel was alarmed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, indicating such fears worked against any change in Israeli policy.

“They’re expressing concern about Iran,” said ElBaradei after talks with senior officials at Israel’s secretive nuclear energy agency.

‘Fear for Middle East’
IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky described ElBaradei’s “fear for the Middle East” as a constant thread in his visit, which includes a planned meeting Thursday with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

He said ElBaradei would be happy to act as an informal bridge between Israel and the Islamic world, which resents what it considers unfair international tolerance of Israel’s secret nuclear capacities.

As part of Israel’s pitch for its right to use all means to defend itself, ElBaradei was flown over Israel, accompanied by a top Israeli air force officer, an official familiar with his agenda said.

The air force officer argued that that Israel has no defensive depth, because a plane can fly from one border to the other in three and a half minutes, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

ElBaradei has been denied access to Israel’s Dimona reactor, said to be the source of plutonium for its alleged weapons program. But the official said that at one point, the plane flew over the southern Negev Desert within sight of the reactor.

While declining to go into details about his talks, ElBaradei indicated Wednesday that Iran was a dominant theme.

Probing Tehran's capability
ElBaradei’s agency is probing nearly two decades of suspect nuclear activities in Iran that the United States, Israel and others say reflect attempts to make atomic weapons.

Tehran insists it only wants nuclear energy to generate power, but several IAEA reports over the past year suggest the Islamic republic has not fully cooperated with agency inspectors and has failed to clear up suspicions about its aims.

ElBaradei has suggested Israel should at least consider easing its taboo on talking about nuclear arms as part of any long-term Middle East settlement that would rid the region of such weapons.

In an indication Sharon will not bend on the issue, Israel Army Radio rebroadcast comments Sharon made in May. “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 told the radio at the time.

Israel has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would force it to declare itself a weapons state and curb its nuclear activities.

Gentle persuasion
But ElBaradei said he hoped to persuade Israeli leaders to agree to a separate protocol curbing nuclear exports and imports.

Such a move would be mostly symbolic — Israel already has strict export and import commitments — and is seen as an attempt to nudge it toward increased cooperation with the IAEA.

Evidence 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 research and statements made by Israeli leaders.

Israel is believed to be the only country in the region to have nuclear missiles ready to launch. Experts say it may already have as many as 300 warheads as well as the capability of building more quickly.