nuclear resesearch installation in Dimona - AFP - 24112011
A 2002 picture of the nuclear resesearch installation in Dimona. Photo by AFP
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"The sky didn't fall on us," admits the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, whose representatives returned from two days of talks at the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. The subject was a nuclear-weapon-free Middle East.

The meeting they had so much feared was nonbinding and academic. The goal was to learn from other nuclear-weapon-free zones. These five are Africa, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific and Central and South America.

Israel has taken part in similar meetings in the past. One of them took place in Cairo in August 2010 at the initiative of an international organization headed by the foreign ministers of Australia and Japan. Iranian representatives took part. Another conference, initiated by the European Union, was held in June 2011 in Brussels. But the conference this week in Vienna, with the participation of Israel, Arab states and about 70 other countries, marked the first discussion under the IAEA's sponsorship on forming a nuclear-weapon-free zone.

Iran boycotted the event, apparently not because of Israel's participation but because it is angry at the IAEA and Director General Yukiya Amano, who didn't hesitate to publish a tough report about two weeks ago. The document claims that Iran's nuclear program includes worrisome military aspects.

For 11 years Israel refused to take part in every forum the IAEA wanted to convene on the issue. The Israeli delegation to the Vienna talks was headed by David Danieli, deputy director of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission. He told Haaretz that Israel expressed its willingness to participate after the agenda and terms of reference were coordinated in advance. The terms of reference included a decision to discuss lessons learned - not only in nuclear-weapon-free zones but also parts of the world where this is no such zone. Europe, for example.

Soft on Iran

But the real reason for Israel's refusal to take part in a meeting sponsored by the IAEA until now was the person who headed the organization, Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, whose name is now being mentioned as a possible Egyptian president. ElBaradei is seen in Israel - and in Washington and Western European capitals as well - as soft on Iran, someone who closed his eyes to Iran's military nuclear activities. He is also seen as hostile to Israel. Danieli does not respond directly to the question of whether the change in Israel's attitude stems from the IAEA's change in leadership. He prefers to put it this way, without mentioning names: "In previous years the agreement among the countries and the IAEA secretariat that has now made the event possible had not yet formed." At the meeting, Israel's representatives were surprised by two interesting developments. One is that the representatives of the Arab countries, headed by Egypt, presented their views in a practical and nonbelligerent tone. Only the Syrian representative, whose country was exposed as having secretly built a reactor to produce nuclear weapons (which was destroyed by the Israel Air Force ) delivered a tough and characteristic speech. He described Israel as a threat to peace and security in the region because it has nuclear weapons and refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Let there be no mistake. The Arab countries have not changed their stance. They would still like to see Israel get rid of what the entire world believes it has: nuclear weapons. But apparently a reason for the moderate and sometimes confused tone of Arab spokesmen is domestic problems. The violent unrest sweeping the Arab world is preoccupying them more than their desire to see nuclear disarmament in Israel. Israel's nuclear policy is defined as "ambiguous." The world believes that Israel has nuclear weapons, but Israel has never declared this and repeats the mantra formulated already in the early 1960s by then-Deputy Defense Minister Shimon Peres: Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region. Nor did Israel sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. From that day it has rejected any international pressure - and the pressure has not been heavy - to join the treaty and let IAEA inspectors check out the nuclear facility in Dimona and other facilities suspected of engaging in nuclear activity for military purposes.

Israel's many conditions

Israel has never claimed that there is no possibility it will change its nuclear policy one day. But for Israel that's a vision for the distant future. First, as Danieli said during the discussion, there are several conditions: Every country in the region must recognize Israel, sign peace agreements and make security arrangements with it; only then will it be possible to discuss regional nuclear disarmament. Israel believes that there should also be a simultanenous discussion on eliminating all weapons of mass destruction: biological and chemical weapons and the missiles that launch them.

Israel also points out another issue: How the Middle East's borders should be defined. Isn't the status of Pakistan, considered the largest proliferator of nuclear weapons (Pakistan supplied the know-how and technology to Iran, Libya and perhaps Syria ), relevant to the creation of a nuclear-free Middle East? For the Israel Atomic Energy Commission the answer is clear.

The second development that was sweet music to Israeli ears was the stance of most non-Arab countries at the meeting. They gave the impression that they support Israel's position in principle. The ambassador of a large Western country asked a rhetorical question: Was there ever a situation in which a discussion about promoting a nuclear-weapon-free zone was launched without the countries in the region recognizing one another?

Even the Russian representative, who also spoke in the name of Britain and the United States (the three are considered the NPT's "trustees" ), said the region won't be able to become nuclear free without progress in the peace process.

In his summation, Amano praised the "positive atmosphere" and summed up the conference as a "symbolically important" attempt to bring together rival nations, even if no "concrete results" were achieved.

Even after the conference, and perhaps even more emphatically because of it, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission does not intend to recommend a change in Israel's position. Despite calls for doing so both at home and abroad, Israel will not change its policy of nuclear ambiguity. That may happen only if Iran has nuclear weapons and other countries in the region such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Algeria follow in its footsteps.