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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Spotlight on Israel's nuclear facilities

By Matthew Price
BBC correspondent in Jerusalem

Dimona plant in Israel (aerial photo)
Israel neither confirms nor denies it possesses nuclear weapons

Israel's nuclear capability is coming under the spotlight even before Mr ElBaradei's plane touches down.

No-one, however, seems to be expecting any major announcements following his series of meetings here.

The head of the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will be whisked in to see Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

He will have discussions with the foreign minister and the health minister.

But he is not scheduled to visit any of Israel's nuclear facilities.

So, why did he come?

Secret exposed

Mr ElBaradei has made it clear that he wishes the Middle East to be free of nuclear weapons.

Mr ElBaradei takes a pragmatic line with regards to Israel's nuclear capability
The agency he heads has frequently called on other countries in the region to agree to UN inspections.

Iran has agreed under pressure to open up its nuclear facilities to inspection.

Libya recently decided to get rid of its weapons of mass destruction. The situation in Iraq has also clearly changed.

But then there is Israel.

Drive south through Israel and the fertile fields of the central area slowly give way to the desert sand and rock of the Negev.

Take a left turn in the town of Beer Sheva, drive on a few more kilometres and you will get to the community of Dimona.

It is here that Israel's nuclear secret was exposed almost 20 years ago.

'Nuclear ambiguity'

Dimona is home to one of Israel's nuclear facilities. In the mid-1980s, a technician here called Mordechai Vanunu took photographs and documents from inside the plant.

Mordechai Vanunu in 1986, after being captured by Israel's secret service
Mordechai Vanunu: Revealed Israel's nuclear capability
He then gave his story to London's Sunday Times newspaper.

Mordechai Vanunu paid a big price for his treachery. He was imprisoned by Israel for 18 years.

But he exposed the fact that Israel had a nuclear weapons capability.

Estimates of how many nuclear warheads are currently stored in Israel's bunkers vary from 200 to 400.

Israel says it would like to see a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

But as to whether or not it has a nuclear capability, Israel prefers to adopt a policy of what is calls "nuclear ambiguity".

It neither confirms nor denies whether it possesses nuclear weapons.

'Double standards'

IAEA officials say they do not expect any change in Israeli policy during Mr ElBaradei's visit.

And Israeli officials have made it clear they see no reason for such a change.

Mr ElBaradei takes a pragmatic line with regards to Israel's nuclear capability.

The indications are that he will be pressing hard for Israel to at least begin talking seriously about a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

In the past, the UN's nuclear chief has said that Israel's nuclear capacity had created an imbalance in the region.

Certainly, that is how Israel's Arab neighbours feel.

They accuse the international community of double standards, as Western countries call on other Middle Eastern countries to open up to nuclear inspections, but apply little pressure on Israel to do the same.

Mr ElBaradei will not try to rock the boat here.

Analysts expect him to try to examine, with Israeli leaders, how tentative progress might be made on creating a nuclear weapons free Middle East.

But he has already acknowledged that, until there is comprehensive peace in the region, Israel will not be giving up its nuclear capability.

Mr Sharon, quoted by Israeli Army Radio, said the country did not intend to change its "no show, no tell" policy.


SEE ALSO:
Sharon sticks to nuclear policy
06 Jul 04 |  Middle East
Israel shows nuclear plant images
05 Jul 04 |  Middle East
UN asks Israel to go nuclear-free
27 Jun 04 |  Middle East
Defiant Vanunu celebrates freedom
21 Apr 04 |  Middle East
Israel's nuclear programme
22 Dec 03 |  Middle East


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