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ElBaradei to raise idea of nuclear-free Mideast

By Yossi Melman
Haaretz Correspondent
July 7, 2004

Opening a closely watched visit to Israel, Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is expected to raise Wednesday the idea of Israel taking part in an international conference under IAEA patronage to discuss the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East.

Government efforts to keep low-key the visit of Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency visit and keep the press out of it failed, as the visitor has held three impromptu press conferences - one at his hotel, one after his Jerusalem meeting with Health Minister Danny Naveh and one after his Ramat Aviv meeting with Gideon Frank, head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (in practice involved with nuclear weapons rather than energy).

ElBaradei's lecture at the Hebrew University campus in Jerusalem was held behind closed doors, with the list of invitees carefully screened in advance by Frank and his staff, but anti-nuclear activists organised by the Vanunu Solidarity Committee held a picket outside, calling for a Middle east free of all weapons of mass destruction. ElBaradei leaves tonight for Vienna, the IAEA headquarters.

"I would like to see Israel supporting the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty," ElBaradei said on his arrival in Israel Tuesday, adding that he would like to see Israel sign an additional agreement committing it to disclose information on any potential nuclear-related exports.

But the IAEA director said he did not intend to push the Jewish state on the nuclear issue. "It's not a question of pressure. I have no power to pressure," he said.

ElBaradei is to raise the nuclear-free zone concept during a scheduled Wednesday meeting in Tel Aviv with Gideon Frank, head of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, and commission officials, to discuss various aspects of Israel's nuclear policies.

Formally, ElBaradei is the commission's guest. At the Wednesday meeting, he will also raise the idea of the IAEA sending inspectors to monitor Israel's nuclear activities.

Israel strongly objects to any international inspections of its nuclear facility in Dimona, although it does allow IAEA inspections at the small research reactor at Nahal Soreq, near Yavneh.

ElBaradei is scheduled to meet later on Wednesday with Health Minister Dan Naveh, and with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Thursday.

"There are no signs of a policy change in Israel," said a diplomat close to the IAEA.

ElBaradei's spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said ElBaradei realized "the objectives are ambitious and are not going to be achieved overnight. But he is willing to invest the time necessary to make progress."

New nuclear medicine program Israel is expected to announce Wednesday a new national program for nuclear medicine that will win financial and technical support from the IAEA.

The announcement will come during a meeting in Jerusalem this afternoon between Naveh and ElBaradei. The declaration is meant to emphasize the long-standing cooperation between Israel and the IAEA and to dull the tension that exists between the state and the international agency over Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity.

Also up for discussion are the various international treaties Israel has signed, such as the treaty for the protection of reactors and disaster prevention programs, as well as programs meant to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons or material.

On Thursday, ElBaradei is slated to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the prime minister's bureau. He will also see Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom at Ben-Gurion Airport, where Shalom will be returning from overseas as ElBaradei leaves for his Vienna headquarters. Also tomorrow, he is slated to deliver a speech at Hebrew University to a select audience of academics, government officials and press on his view on how to reduce the world's supply of nuclear weapons.

During his talks with the Israeli officials, both sides will raise the issue of Iran's nuclear program and IAEA efforts to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Government sources are emphasizing that the visit is "routine" and no change in policy should be expected. Indeed, the government is making efforts to keep the visit very low profile.

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