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VIENNA - "Obviously, the smaller the country is, the more concerned it will be," says Daniela Rozgonova, who is responsible for external and media relations at the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). Her office is in the Vienna International Center, a high-rise compound that looks out over the Danube and is home to the head offices of several UN-affiliated organizations.

Although her words may be interpreted as an implied criticism of Israel, they are primarily directed at a description of the facts: the treaty, which bans nuclear testing at sea, in the atmosphere, on land and below ground, and which has been signed by 177 states, is not in force. This is because 12 countries - considered key states - have not ratified it (some have not signed it, either). Israel, which has signed the treaty, is one of the 12. But the greater problem that is holding up the treaty's enforcement is its non-ratification by the United States, which has also signed the treaty.

Reponding to a question posed by Haaretz as to where Israel stands on the matter, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) answered as follows: "Israel's considerations vis-a-vis ratification are well known, and include the preparedness of the verification regime [as defined in the treaty itself], its proper and equitable place in the institutions of the organization, and the situation in the Middle East." As the body responsible for Israel's nuclear program, the IAEC is also responsible for contacts with CTBTO. Officially, the IAEC's response may be understood in a simple way: Israel will ratify the treaty when the CTBTO preparatory commission completes its drafting of the guidelines of how to conduct the verification regime; when it decides to which regional group of states Israel will be assigned (as a result of pressure from Arab states and their supporters, Israel has been unable to join the regional groups established by the UN organizations, such as those of Asia, Europe and the Middle East); and above all, when the "situation in the Middle East" changes - in other words, when security arrangements and peace treaties are made with the majority of Arab states and Iran.

But what is not mentioned in the IAEC response can be read between the lines: The fact, which was confirmed by diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, that Israel cannot defy its biggest ally, the United States. Therefore, as long as the United States refuses to ratify the treaty, Israel will follow suit. Ratification of the treaty is a political issue, adds Rozgonova, who previously served as Slovakia's ambassador to the CTBTO. "Countries are suspicious of the idea of supervision in general, and especially supervision that harms their sovereignty. Israel is a small country, and the smaller the country, the quicker and easier things can be discovered, which may explain why it is concerned."

Bush vehemently opposed

CTBTO's biggest problem, however, is the United States. The Clinton administration was ready to ratify the treaty (assuming that it had a majority in Congress), but the Bush administration has made it clear it would not ratify any treaty that prevented it from holding nuclear tests. Since May 1998, there has been no known nuclear testing of any sort; the most recent tests were conducted by India and Pakistan. But while the Bush administration has no declared intention of renewing nuclear testing, it wishes to leave the United States with the option of doing so in the future.

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed in September 1996, and is the result of extensive international efforts dating back more than 40 years. In 1963, the first treaty was signed, which forbade nuclear tests "in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water." France and China, already nuclear powers at the time, refused to sign it. The next important stage was in 1968, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was signed. Of the "Club of Nine" that have nuclear arms, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and North Korea signed the NPT and ratified it, and only three states - Israel, India and Pakistan - declined to sign it (last year, North Korea suspended its membership in the NPT).

However, the breakthrough to achieving an absolute and inclusive suspension of nuclear testing was made at the end of a three-year round of negotiations that began in 1993. The first two articles of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which are also defined as "Basic Obligations," state: "1. Each State Party undertakes not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion, and to prohibit and prevent any such nuclear explosion at any place under its jurisdiction or control. 2. Each State Party undertakes, furthermore, to refrain from causing, encouraging, or in any way participating in the carrying out of any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion."

The treaty states that it will enter into force 180 days after its ratification by the 44 key member states listed in Annex 2 to the treaty. As of now, only 32 of these states have ratified. The other 12 refuse to do so. Some, like Congo and Colombia, are delaying ratification due to bureaucratic lethargy or foot-dragging. But others have more principled motives. China will not ratify the treaty as long as the United States has not done so. Egypt will not ratify it as long as Israel has not done so. And it is not at all clear if Pakistan and India, who have not even signed the treaty, will ever ratify it.

Global monitoring regime

Yet in spite of the difficulties, the CTBTO has operated for several years as a typical UN bureaucracy. It holds a general conference every two years, the purpose of which is to discuss moving ahead with the treaty. The most recent conference took place in September. Before, during and after the conference, efforts are made to persuade the states that have so far refused to join, to change their minds and to do it soon. Therefore, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, like the other heads of state of the 12 demurring countries, received an appeal from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who reminded him of Israel's commitment and urged him to ratify the treaty.

In parallel with the biannual general conference, the CTBTO continues to ready itself for the moment at which the treaty will be enforced. A chief element in these preparations is the establishment of an efficient verification, monitoring and supervisory regime to ensure that member states honor the treaty and do not carry out nuclear tests. The organization acts in two ways to create this supervisory mechanism. One is the establishment and operation of a global monitoring system known as IMS. The system, which is to include over 300 monitoring stations around the world, will gather information from throughout the world, including the atmosphere, so that any explosion, even the slightest, will be registered on the stations' sensors.

In the framework of this regime, two seismic stations have been built in Israel - one in Eilat, the other on Mt. Meron. The cost of operating the stations, approximately NIS 250,000 a year, is financed by the CTBTO, not the IAEA or any other Israeli government source. The stations are already operable, but are still awaiting the official permit from the CTBTO, which will be issued during 2004.

In addition to determining if a nuclear explosion has occurred, all of the monitoring stations also play an important scientific role. They track seismic and atmospheric processes, and are capable of gathering information on earthquakes or other explosions. For example, they can contribute to investigations of aviation disasters. Dr. David McCormack, the technical adviser to Canada's delegation to CTBTO, wrote in July in the CTBTO journal about the contribution made by one particular monitoring station, at Eskdalemuir in Scotland, which in December 1988 picked up the explosion caused by a bomb placed by Libyan agents on the Pan Am 747, which caused the plane's disastrous crash near the town of Lockerbie. The seismic signals picked up by the station, and their comparison with data from the radar system that had been tracking the flight, helped scientists learn about the connection between size and velocity of objects in crash situations.

The second field in which CTBTO is continuing preparations prior to implementation of the treaty is what is called "on site inspection." Three work groups, comprising experts in various fields, are endeavoring to formulate the guidelines according to which inspections will be conducted on site in signatory states suspected of having carried out nuclear tests. This is a delicate amalgam of legal formulations alongside technically complex guidelines of how and when to do what.

Israeli scientist Mordechai Melamud, a former member of the IAEC who now works at CTBTO headquarters in Vienna, is part of one of these working groups. "Israel is very active in the organization," Rozgonova emphasizes. This activity is especially conspicuous, more than in many other UN organizations in which Israel's status has been undermined; this is all the more true for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose headquarters are located in the same office complex in Vienna. As opposed to the IAEA and the NPT, which sets off Israel's alarm bells, since it suspects the agency of trying to incorporate the Dimona reactor in its supervisory regime and cause Israel to disarm itself of nuclear weapons, Israel has nothing to conceal from the CTBTO.

Aside from unsubstantiated suspicions that Israel was involved in a 1979 nuclear test conducted by South Africa in the Indian Ocean (the CIA was unable to reach any decisive conclusions on the matter), it is hard to believe that Israel has any intention of conducting a nuclear test in the future. In any event, it certainly has nothing to fear as long as it enjoys the American umbrella, which defends its policy of refusing to ratify the CTBTO.