Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei will visit Israel tomorrow, six years after his previous visit when he met with then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu "to discuss the nuclear issue."

ElBaradei is the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and his visit here is viewed largely as ceremonial, with Israel politely fulfilling its role as a member of the IAEA since its inception in 1957. And just as Netanyahu had no intention of infusing real content into his "talks" with ElBaradei in 1998, so Ariel Sharon and the heads of the nuclear establishment now do not intend to seriously deliberate with him Israel's nuclear policy. On the face of it, ElBaradei's mandate is clear: he will try to set up a nuclear-free region in the Middle East. He is, however, well aware that he has no chance of promoting this concept. Israel's official position is that the area can be denuclearized only after all the countries of the region sign peace treaties with it. The IAEA chief is also well aware that so long as Iran is secretly working toward the development of nuclear weapons, Israel does not have any reason to examine the idea of denuclearization seriously.

As a matter of course, ElBaradei will, during his talks, raise the question of Israel's joining the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) even though he is aware that there is also no chance to get Israel to change its traditional stance on this.

Since 1987, the UN General Assembly has 13 times adopted resolutions calling on Israel to sign the treaty; but ElBaradei is also aware of the understanding reached in September 1969 between then Israeli premier Golda Meir and then U.S. president Richard Nixon, which said that Washington will refrain from pressing Israel to sign the NPT. This agreement has since been put to the test several times, and ElBaradei is aware that here too there is no chance for change.

ElBaradei takes a sober approach to Israel's nuclear potential. With this in mind, he clarifies that while no one doubts that Israel has nuclear weapons, "the decision whether to make a public declaration or to maintain an air of ambiguity is that of Israel," as he phrased it last week in Moscow.

During an April conference in Cairo, ElBaradei made a number of interesting remarks which indicate a need to come to terms with the fact that Israel is a nuclear power de facto. ElBaradei, who was born in Egypt, expressed strong criticism of the "emotional and unrealistic approach" of Arab countries to the issue of disarming Israel's nuclear arsenal. He went so far as to make it clear that he accepted the Israeli claim, as he put it, that it "cannot forgo weapons of mass destruction in its possession so long as there is no comprehensive peace in the region."

Israel's nuclear policy-makers will grant ElBaradei a great deal of respect; they will hold talks with him that are lacking in all practical significance, and will even organize a tour for him of the nuclear facility at Nahal Soreq. Those who make the decisions about Israel's nuclear policy are of the opinion that there is no need to alter the traditional, and successful, policy of vagueness.

Undoubtedly, this Israeli nuclear policy is one of the most impressive successes of national security, but it is possible that the time has come to refresh it and to grant international affirmation to Israel's nuclear status. The visit of the IAEA chief could be exploited as a first step in this direction.

Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi's announcement that he plans to dismantle his country's WMD programs, and Iran's agreement to abandon the uranium enrichment program, will naturally lead to focusing international attention on Israel's nuclear potential, and ElBaradei's visit here is evidence of this trend. Israel should take advantage of the far-reaching changes that have taken place in the region recently, and bring about a revision that will ultimately include abandoning its policy of ambiguity. The process of change should be a gradual one, and the sine qua non for its success has to be in full coordination with the U.S.

Nevertheless, in view of ElBaradei's pronouncements, it is possible that new ideas should be be examined with him on a preliminary basis. Clearly one cannot expect him to support changing Israel's status into that of a declared nuclear power. If, however, at the end of his visit he will again repeat some of the pronouncements he made in Cairo, this will be an important step in the right direction.