INTERVIEW / Atomic Energy Official David Danieli: A Nuclear Weapons-free Middle East?

Israeli diplomacy has managed to thwart an IAEA resolution by Arab-Muslim nations that would place heavy controls on its nuclear program.

At the International Atomic Energy Agency's General Conference about a year ago, an Arab-sponsored resolution passed with a slim majority that called on Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The resolution also called for Israel "to place all its nuclear facilities under comprehensive IAEA safeguards," including the reactor in Dimona - where, according to the resolution's authors, Israel is producing fissionable material for nuclear weapons.

Last Friday, however, Israeli diplomacy managed to thwart the passage of a similar resolution, defeating the Arab-Muslim bloc of nations headed by Egypt.

David Danieli
Tomer Appelbaum

David Danieli worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 32 years; his final posting was as Israel's ambassador to India. About three years ago, he joined Israel's Atomic Energy Commission as deputy director general and head of the policy division.

You recently returned from the IAEA General Conference. What has changed since last year?

"This was definitely a very important achievement for Israel. This is also an unprecedented decision, in light of the fact that there is an automatic majority against Israel in international organizations. Israel is not blessed with a lot of decisions in the international arena that defeat the bloc of Arab-Muslim states.

"The split in the IAEA, as in other organizations, is pretty clear. The bloc of Western countries - the entire European Union, including both western and eastern Europe, as well as the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and others - supported us. The Islamic-Arab bloc and some of the nonaligned nations supported the Egyptian resolution.

"In a combined action by the AEC and the Foreign Ministry, which also got help from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, we succeeded in convincing eight countries that voted in favor of the Arab proposal last year (among them Serbia, Singapore and Thailand ) to change their vote, and this time, they abstained. The Arab proposal was defeated by a majority of 51 against, 46 in favor and 23 abstentions."

What is the significance of this decision?

"It thwarted an Arab proposal that was aimed at isolating Israel and treating it as though it were Iran or Syria, countries that are accused of violating their international obligations and are being investigated by the IAEA. In effect, the Arab countries were trying to hold every other issue hostage to the resolution on "Israel's Nuclear Capabilities." They were even prepared to thwart condemnations of North Korea, a rogue state that is also violating its commitments. Even though no investigation is underway against Israel, the Arab countries, headed by Egypt, wanted to put us in the dock."

I understand Israel threatened that passing the resolution would harm the Middle East peace process and the chances of reaching diplomatic and security agreements. Is this so?

"We made no threats. The Western countries understood that if their goal is to create conditions that would enable progress toward agreements on peace and security in the Middle East, then passing a resolution condemning Israel would subvert this. They understood this would be an outrageous decision at a time when the investigations of Iran and Syria are at their height and efforts are being made to resume negotiations for regional peace.

"One of our more convincing arguments was asking why Israel should be singled out when the IAEA has never passed a resolution against any other country that is not a signatory to the treaty, such as Pakistan and India."

Did Russia and China vote against us?

"Yes. They did this for reasons of international politics. They do not vote with the bloc of Western countries, so we were not surprised. This is a continuation of the vote from last year."

Does this diplomatic achievement have any significance for or effect on Israel's nuclear policy?

"No. It doesn't have any significance."

Why not?

"Israel has a clear and responsible nuclear policy, and it has frequently reiterated that it will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East."

Perhaps the time has come to change this?

"Israel neither adds to nor subtracts from this statement."

Maybe Israel really should sign the NPT.

"Joining the pact is the sovereign decision of each country. India and Pakistan have not joined the treaty. Cuba, which condemns us repeatedly on the nuclear issue, joined the treaty only in 2002. France and China did so only in the 1990s. In other words, every country decides in accordance with its own interests.

"Israel does not see fit to join the treaty as long as the current conditions in this region remain in place. The nuclear issue is not the only issue threatening the security of the Middle East. There are other weapons of mass destruction here - chemical and biological. Israel wants to discuss all the aspects of regional security and not only the nuclear issue.

"Another danger in this region is terrorist organizations that get aid from terror-supporting states like Iran and Syria. These organizations have tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel. Our population center are vulnerable to this threat. Israel does not have strategic depth. All these are definite issues of regional security that must be discussed."

What about the demand to establish a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East?

"The prime minister has already made it clear that Israel rejects the resolution passed on this issue several months ago at the NPT Review Conference in New York. Israel did not participate in the conference and it rejects any attempt to impose its decisions.

"We want, for example, to jointly define the boundaries of the Middle East. Pakistan, which is located at the edge of the region, is a Muslim country that has nuclear weapons and has served as a source for the proliferation of nuclear technology and knowledge to countries in the Middle East. The question is whether Pakistan has to be part of the discussions on establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East.

"There are also questions with respect to the position of Egypt, which is calling for the establishment of such a zone in the Middle East. Egypt is located on the African continent, where a nuclear weapons-free zone has been established. Nevertheless, Egypt has not ratified the treaty.

"We are prepared to advance regional security arrangements, as was done in the peace talks in the 1990s, where there was an attempt to discuss all the issues, including conventional and nonconventional weapons. The talks were halted at that time because of Egypt's demand to discuss only the nuclear issue."

Are you able to say with certainty that despite the absence of international supervision, the reactor in Dimona is safe, not dangerous, even though it is more than 50 years old?

"Israel's nuclear facilities in Nahal Soreq and Dimona are in good hands. We have a nuclear safety commission that reports directly to the prime minister. We observe all IAEA safety requirements, regulations and instructions. We are members of the IAEA safety committees and we scrupulously uphold all the standards applied by the most advanced countries in the field. We have knowledge and cooperation with other countries on the issue of nuclear safety."