Israel posts site on nuclear program

Little new information presented

access comes ahead of ElBaradei's visit

July 05, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

JERUSALEM - Israel's Atomic Energy Commission posted a Web site yesterday about the country's nuclear program, which has always been highly secretive, though the site is limited to the most basic information and a few long-distance photos.

The introduction of the site came two days before a visit by the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, who last week called for talks on a nuclear-free Middle East.

As noted on the Web site (www.iaec.gov.il), Israel's Atomic Energy Commission was established in 1952 by the prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. Since then, Israel has tried to say as little as possible about its nuclear program. It has always refused to confirm or deny whether it possesses nuclear weapons, though various estimates have said the country has enough plutonium to make about 200 such weapons.

In an interview in December with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, ElBaradei said he presumed that Israel had a nuclear arsenal.

No reference to arms

The Web site notes that Israel has two nuclear research centers, including a nuclear reactor in the Negev Desert, outside the southern town of Dimona. There is no reference to nuclear weapons on the Web posting, which says the Dimona facility is for "expanding and deepening basic knowledge of nuclear science and related fields and providing an infrastructure for the practical and economic utilization of atomic energy."

Several photos are of nondescript buildings, with bright flowers in the foreground. One shows what appears to be the silhouette of the dome-shaped Dimona reactor at sunset, from a great distance.

The site, in English and Hebrew, offers just a few pages of general information that is common knowledge. In May, Israel's equally secretive intelligence service, Mossad, posted a Web site, which advertises for recruits.

Although ElBaradei's two-day visit will focus attention on Israel's nuclear program, Israeli analysts say they see no possibility that it will lead Israel to change its policy of "strategic ambiguity."

"These policies have been followed by all prime ministers; they enjoy wide support in the Israeli body politic, and are well understood by Israel's allies," said Uzi Arad, director of the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv.

ElBaradei's visit is likely to cover civilian nuclear issues, such as nuclear medicine and safety regulations, Arad said.

Shrouded program

Israel is a longstanding member of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but the country has never signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and has not allowed international inspectors to visit the Dimona reactor. Israel contends that its shrouded nuclear program serves as an effective deterrent in a region where several of its enemies have sought nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei said a week ago that he would like all unconventional weapons removed from the Middle East. "Israel agrees with that, but they say it has to be after peace agreements," ElBaradei said. "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."

Israel's critics contend that Israel is able to maintain its clandestine program with the blessing of the United States.

To date, the most detailed description of Israel's Dimona nuclear reactor has come from Mordechai Vanunu, a former technician at the plant. Vanunu was released from prison in April after serving almost 18 years for describing his work at the reactor and for smuggling out dozens of photos. His story was published in 1986 in The Sunday Times of London.

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