UN watchdog to press Israel to give up nukes


The head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Dr Mohamed ElBaradei, goes to Israel on Tuesday to try to persuade the Jewish state to open up its nuclear programme, but officials said Israel was not ready to scrap its atomic arsenal.

Under its policy of "strategic ambiguity", Israel neither admits nor denies having nuclear weapons. But it is assumed to have up to 200 warheads, based on estimates of the amount of plutonium Israeli reactors have produced.

While no breakthroughs are expected, one Western diplomat close to the IAEA said Dr ElBaradei would meet senior Israeli officials, possibly including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon

IAEA spokesman Mr Mark Gwozdecky said it would be partly a "routine visit", but added that Dr ElBaradei intended "to promote the concept of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East" - clearly the central point of his talks.

Asked if Israel was ready to abandon its strategic ambiguity policy, a senior Israeli official said: "Absolutely not. The policy has served the country well for decades against very hostile Middle East neighbours. Only when that regional situation improves can we seriously consider a change of policy."

Analysts said the timing of the trip was significant. The international community is increasingly suspicious of the nuclear programme of Iran, a declared enemy of Israel, and other Middle East states have demanded that the IAEA put pressure on Israel.