JERUSALEM — JERUSALEM -- The director of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency urged Israel yesterday to be more forthcoming about its clandestine nuclear weapons program, warning that Israel's secrecy made it difficult for him to persuade Iran and other states in the region to end their suspected weapons programs.
Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, told an audience at Hebrew University that it was time for Israel and other countries to end what he called the "bureaucratic fiction" of refusing to acknowledge weapons of mass destruction.
Israel maintains an official policy of nuclear ambiguity, never formally acknowledging its nuclear stockpile and in that way not giving other Middle Eastern states an excuse for developing nuclear arms of their own. Published reports suggest that Israel has enough nuclear material for 100 to 200 warheads, and is the only country in the region capable of immediately launching nuclear-armed missiles.
Israel has been a member of the IAEA since 1957, but is one of three member countries, with India and Pakistan, not to have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. As a result, Israel's main nuclear facility, at Dimona in the Negev desert, remains off limits to IAEA inspectors.
The Egyptian-born ElBaradei told his audience that despite Israel's secrecy, "people treat you as a nuclear weapons state." He said leaders of other nations complain of a double standard that allows Israel to develop nuclear capabilities while denying that ability to its neighbors.
"The reaction is why is Israel outside," ElBaradei said. "The feeling that there is a security imbalance is not limited to Iran, but is a prevailing feeling in the whole Arab and Muslim world."
ElBaradei said he did not press Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for change. "For me, it doesn't really make a difference," he said. "Whether it is a vague policy or an open policy, the end result is to make sure Israel becomes part of a nuclear-weapons-free zone and that all of its nuclear facilities are under international supervision. I heard a clear commitment to that objective."
Israeli officials confirmed that they are committed to ElBaradei's vision of a "nuclear-free zone" in the Middle East, but said their policy of neither confirming nor denying the existence of nuclear weapons would continue because outside threats have not dissipated.
One of the biggest threats, Israeli officials say, comes from Iran, whose leaders recently acknowledged a secret 18-year nuclear program. They deny that they are trying to develop weapons but have thwarted independent efforts to assess the extent of the program.
Experts on Israel's nuclear programs said ElBaradei's primary purpose in visiting Israel was to pressure Iran into cooperating with international inspectors.
"Now he is able to go back to Iran and say that he is working on the entire region," said Gerald Steinberg, an adviser to Israel's National Security Council. "There is certainly an amount of political cover from this visit. He is not going to change anything in Israel. He made a calculation that going through this exercise and raising these issues publicly is better than appearing to ignore them."
ElBaradei said Iran was only part of the problem, and lamented the proliferation of nuclear equipment via private corporations. He repeatedly said he envisions a world free of nuclear arms.
"Weapons of mass destruction should be treated like genocide and slavery," he said during his opening remarks at the university. "They shouldn't be part of a treaty. They should be part of the collective consciousness of humanity."
ElBaradei warned of a "complete erosion of the legitimacy of the nonproliferation regime. We are in a race against time." He said the surprise discovery of nuclear programs in Iran and Libya "was an eye-opener."
It is because of those surprises that Israel is not inclined to alter its policy on nuclear weapons.
"The survival of Israel is very much anchored in its nuclear program," said Shlomo Aronson, a political science professor at Hebrew University and an expert on Israel's nuclear policies. "The opaque position is pretty clever in the sense that we are not publicly threatening the Arabs or the Iranians."
Sharon told Israel radio this week that his country "has all the elements of power necessary to protect itself independent of outside aid. Our policy of ambiguity on nuclear arms has proved its worth, and it will continue."
ElBaradei's visit put the nuclear program in the spotlight. Over the past week, Israel's Atomic Energy Commission launched an Internet site, held an unprecedented news conference and enacted a law restricting the sale of weapons-related nuclear components.
The law, which went into effect July 1, "merely codifies what was previously a policy of responsible behavior," a senior official with the atomic commission told reporters. The official confirmed that Sharon supported the concept of a nuclear-free zone, but only as part of the latter stages of a peace process with the Palestinians.
The issue of nuclear arms is so sensitive that Israel jailed a technician, Mordechai Vanunu, who in 1986 leaked details and photographs of the Dimona facility to the Sunday Times of London. Vanunu was released in April after serving 18 years, but with restrictions placed on his speech and movement.
Israeli leaders sought to play down ElBaradei's visit. His schedule was not made public. He made brief remarks to reporters upon arriving at his hotel in Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, and posed for photographs during the announcement of a nuclear medicine program. Yesterday's event at Hebrew University was the only time he made extensive public remarks and took questions from the press.
It was his third visit to Israel on behalf of the IAEA, and his second as its director. He met with leading Israeli officials, including Sharon, and took an aerial trip over the country; at one point he could see the Dimona nuclear reactor from his airplane window, but he did not request to visit.
ElBaradei said he understood Israel's precarious and complicated place in the world. "You can't just talk about exchanging land for peace and establishing a Palestinian state in a land that has been at war for the past 120 years," he said.
But the weapons chief also said continued policies of ambiguity are becoming outdated in a world where militants can acquire nuclear know-how and parts, and he urged Israel to enter an international dialogue.
"They need to be engaged," he said. "We are all going to succeed together, or we are all going to be losers."