Israel urged to join talks on creating nuclear-free region

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The Independent Online

Israel will today be urged to agree to talks on a nuclear-free Middle East even if she continues to withhold confirmation about her own arsenal of unconventional weapons.

Israel will today be urged to agree to talks on a nuclear-free Middle East even if she continues to withhold confirmation about her own arsenal of unconventional weapons.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), will use a rare meeting here with senior Israeli politicians and officials, including the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, to suggest Israel's policy of nuclear "ambiguity" need not be a bar to wide-ranging strategic talks on regional security.

The visit by Mr ElBaradei, the Egyptian head of the UN's anti-proliferation agency, his first in six years, will throw a fresh and to Israel unwelcome spotlight on her nuclear arsenal. But he has no plans to hector the government on its refusal to confirm or deny it has nuclear weapons.

Nor will he invite an inevitable official refusal by asking to see the Dimona plant in the Negev desert which, the whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu revealed 18 years ago, was developing fissile materials for nuclear weapons manufacture.

Mr ElBaradei said before his visit: "I think everybody takes it as a given that Israel has a nuclear capability, if not nuclear weapons. So whether they would like to come in the open, whether they maintain ... ambiguity, it's for them to decide."

Instead he will focus during a 48-hour visit, described by the IAEA in Vienna yesterday as "routine", as trying to open the door to future regional talks on security which could ease what he says frustration in other Middle Eastern countries at "a security imbalance" posed by Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. As a civil nuclear power, Israel is an IAEA member and the talks will also cover civil issues.

Privately, not even IAEA officials expect Israel to change its long-standing policy that it would consider dismantling its nuclear weapons only when what it sees as the threat from Arab states in the region - which, with the exception of Jordan and Egypt, refuse to recognise it - has been removed.

Israel would also require guarantees that other states in the region, including Syria,had been stripped of chemical and biological weapons, and clear evidence that Iran is no longer trying to produce nuclear weapons.

But Mr ElBaradei said in Moscow at the weekend: "We need ... to rid the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction. Israel agrees with that, but they say it has to be ... after peace agreements. My proposal is maybe we need to start to have a parallel dialogue on security at the same time when we're working on the peace process."

He said a dialogue would help reduce widespread frustration in the Middle East "about what is seen to be a security imbalance". He said talks on nuclear disarmament could stimulate peace efforts by building confidence in the region. Asked if he thought the Israelis would be open to such an idea, he said: "I don't know. That's the purpose of my visit."

Mr ElBaradei, whose visit follows a call last December by Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, for a "nuclear-free" Middle East said in Moscow it was unsustainable that some countries had nuclear weapons and others did not. He added: "As long as you continue to have countries dangling a cigarette from their mouth, you cannot tell everybody not to smoke, with a high degree of credibility."

The IAEA says Israel is in a different category from India and Pakistan, which have also refused to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, because they maintain a "parity" in nuclear deterrence.

But Israel is a signatory and complier with conventions on biological and chemical warfare and says its refusal to sign the non-proliferation treaty is in sharp contrast to Libya, Iran, and Iraq under Saddam Hussein, all of which, it says, tried to develop nuclear programmes in direct violation of the treaty.

The Israel Atomic Energy Commission, an IAEA member which will meet Mr ElBaradei, posted a website at the weekend for the first time. The site acknowledged the Dimona nuclear reactor but made no mention of weapons.

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