Israel seeks exemption from atomic rules

Israel is looking to a U.S.-India nuclear deal to expand its own ties to suppliers, quietly lobbying for an exemption to non-proliferation rules so it can legally import atomic material, according to documents made available Tuesday to The Associated Press.

The move is sure to raise concerns among Arab nations already considering their neighbor the region’s atomic arms threat. Israel has never publicly acknowledged having nuclear weapons but is generally considered to possess them.

The new push is reflected in papers Israel presented earlier this year to the “Nuclear Suppliers’ Group” _ 45 nations that export nuclear fuel and technology under strict rules meant to lessen the dangers of proliferation and trafficking in materials that could be used for a weapons program.

The initiative appeared to be linked to a U.S.-India agreement that would effectively waive the group’s rules by allowing the United States to supply India with nuclear fuel despite its refusal both to sign the nonproliferation treaty and allowing the IAEA to inspect all of its nuclear facilities.

Israeli officials began examining how their country could profit from that deal as early as last year, at one point proposing that the U.S. ask for an exemption from restrictions stipulating safeguards by the U.N. nuclear agency on all nuclear facilities, said a diplomat familiar with the issue. The U.S. rejected that request, he said, demanding anonymity for discussing restricted information.

The diplomat said the Israeli papers were “acknowledged but definitely not embraced” by the NSG member nations.

Still, the documents show that Israel has not given up its quest.

Under a cover letter labeled “confidential,” the two papers were circulated among the group March 19 by Japan, whose mission to Vienna’s International Atomic Energy Agency serves as the liaison office for the group.

Among the hurdles still to be cleared before the U.S.-India pact becomes reality is NSG approval of an exemption for India from group restrictions. Critics have warned that the deal, if it goes through, will deal a blow to efforts to contain the spread of nuclear arms by effectively rewarding a country that has developed nuclear weapons while evading the nonproliferation pact.

Besides India, only Pakistan and North Korea are known to have nuclear weapons and be outside the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Israel is considered an undeclared weapons state, with a doctrine of “nuclear ambiguity.”

In the paper proposing a list of criteria to be used by NSG countries for “Nuclear Collaboration with non-NPT States,” Israel inadvertently appeared to touch on the debate over its own status, saying one condition should be application of “stringent physical protection, control, and accountancy measures to all nuclear weapons … in its territory.”

The other document urges “the international community at large and NSG Member States in particular” to cooperate “with non-NPT states with strong non-proliferation credentials” in the “supply of (nuclear) know-how and equipment.”

Despite close U.S.-Israeli ties, Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns appeared to rule out special treatment for the Jewish state, telling reporters earlier this year that NSG countries needed to know the deal with India “won’t be a precedent to bring other countries in under the same basis.”

But Daryl Kimball, an analyst and executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that _ even if unsuccessful _ any attempt by Israel to move closer to nations exporting sensitive nuclear technology and material that could potentially be turned into fissile material for warheads would alarm many in the Middle East.

“There is a great deal of tensions between non-nuclear (Arab) weapons states and Israel, and the mere existence of this proposal would exacerbate … the Middle East situation,” he said from Washington.

And despite U.S. assurances, “Israel’s proposal illustrates the danger of making exemptions for individual countries from nonproliferation rules and standards,” he said.

The most recent tensions over Israel’s nuclear capabilities surfaced at the IAEA’s 148-nation general conference. On Thursday, the Vienna meeting’s penultimate day, only the U.S. and Israel voted against a critical resolution implicitly aimed at the Jewish State for refusing to put its nuclear program under international purview.
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