TEL AVIV — In the turmoil of a busy political week, the visit here by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, largely escaped public notice. Most Israelis consider their country’s nuclear policies to be way over their heads; in a country where almost everything is subject to debate, “the last taboo” (as scholar Avner Cohen of George Washington University calls it) is something most citizens happily leave to policymakers.
Media coverage of ElBaradei’s visit seemed to focus, with almost childish glee, on what he did not see: the nuclear reactor in Dimona, where — according to foreign sources, of course — Israel enriches uranium for nuclear weapons. An Egyptian diplomat and legal scholar, ElBaradei didn’t demand what he knew he wouldn’t get. His main message was that it’s time to give up old nostrums and begin to focus on real problems in a changing world. “We are in a race against time until one of the extremist groups obtains a nuclear weapon,” he warned in a speech at Hebrew University.
The visit’s biggest headline did not come from ElBaradei himself but rather from his host, Prime Minister Sharon. In a brief meeting on ElBaradei’s last day here, Sharon told him that Israel eventually might consider rethinking its so-called nuclear ambiguity policy, under which it never admits whether it possesses nuclear arms. “In the second phase of the Road Map,” Sharon told ElBaradei, “Israel will be willing to take part in a nuclear-free zone as part of the peace process.”
For most Israelis, “the second phase of the Road Map” is sometime after kingdom come. But Sharon’s very willingness to discuss the idea, even theoretically, was taken as a sign of the friendly tone of ElBaradei’s visit, and of the strength of his message.
“Peace is not only about giving up land or establishing a Palestinian state,” the diplomat told his Jerusalem audience of Israeli academics and journalists. “We need to discuss this” — nuclear nonproliferation — “and the sooner the better. We shall either succeed or fail together. This is a matter of survival.”
ElBaradei presented a worldview in which old threats and old policies are inoperative, and new solutions are needed urgently. “Ordinary deterrence doesn’t work against terrorist groups, which are doing their worst to obtain nuclear weapons,” he said. He also described the growing danger of “privatization” of nuclear know-how and components. “We know of at least 20 companies dealing with this in the world,” he said, and controlling these companies is far harder than overseeing the activities of nations. In such a world, ElBaradei concluded, old safeguards, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), no longer work.
Israel is one of three countries, along with India and Pakistan, that have not signed the NPT. “We can’t treat these countries as though they don’t exist,” ElBaradei said. “We need to find a way to bring them in” to a control system, even if it is “de facto.”
ElBaradei also addressed Israeli concerns over Iran’s nuclear efforts. “I don’t believe sanctions help,” he said, “especially not economic sanctions, which hurt the people and not the regime. I still believe a diplomatic solution may be found. I am also not sure that working through the UN Security Council is the best way.”
Sources in the Israel Atomic Energy Commission told the Forward that while they share ElBaradei’s concerns, Israel is a long way from scrapping its nondisclosure policy. Indeed, military censors have held up Avner Cohen’s latest book for more than a year, with no official explanation.
ElBaradei’s visit coincided with a new round of legal wrangling between state prosecutors and convicted spy Mordechai Vanunu, who was freed from prison in April after serving 18 years for disclosing Israel’s nuclear program to a London newspaper. In a Supreme Court suit, Vanunu is seeking to lift bans on overseas travel and on meeting with foreigners. In a court filing, prosecutors cited evidence that Vanunu still intended to harm state security, including prison letters in which he said; “We must open up Dimona.”