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Behind the Headlines: As Nuclear Treaty Nears, Israel Still Refuses to Sign

Israeli diplomats are accustomed to protesting their forced exclusion from international gatherings.

But when diplomats from around the world gather here to discuss renewing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Israelis will be absent by choice.

Israel has steadfastly rejected calls to sign the treaty. Its diplomats will be accredited only as observers at the convention of NPT signatories.

The convention, beginning here April 17, marks the expiration of the treaty’s first 25-year term.

The United States is pushing for an indefinite renewal of the treaty, which bars countries who did not have nuclear weapons at the time the treaty was ratified from obtaining them.

The nuclear powers permitted by the treaty are the United States, Russia, France, Great Britain and China.

There are several countries besides Israel that are believed to have some nuclear capabilities but have not signed the treaty. These include India, which has denoted a nuclear device, and Pakistan.

Iran, Iraq and North Korea — all of which have been accused of trying to develop nuclear weapons — are signatories.

South Africa, which had long refused to sign, announced a year and a half ago that it had indeed developed six or seven nuclear weapons but had destroyed them and was signing the NPT. South Africa’s nuclear weapons program had been linked in many news reports to that of Israel.

For most of the past 25 years, Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT has received the tacit backing of the United States.

Israel’s position became a front-burner issue again last year, when Egypt threatened not to support renewal of the 25-year-old accord if Israel did not sign on.

The Egyptian threats brought Israeli-Egyptian ties to one of their tensest levels in years.

And the threats worried the U.S. administration, which feared that Egyptian recalcitrance would make it difficult to achieve the indefinite renewal of the treaty.

Some non-aligned nations would prefer that the treaty be renewed only for five years, so they can exert continued pressure on the nuclear powers to fulfill promises of technology transfers contained in the treaty.

Now, the rhetoric is calming down, in the wake of strong American and Japanese pressure on Egypt.

And Israeli and American diplomats believe that the brouhaha will bring little diplomatic fallout for the Jewish state.

“Of course it will create some resentments, some criticisms,” said Gad Ya’acobi, Israeli ambassador to the United Nations.

“But we cannot sign [the treaty] for the time being; it is contrary to our basic security years, Ya’acobi added.

“I think we’ll hear about it,” agreed an American diplomat involved in the NPT discussions, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Obviously, a number of the non-aligned nations will be critical of Israel’s failure to sign the treaty,” he said. But the diplomat added he did not see Israel’s refusal to sign as a major obstacle.

Israel has long maintained that it will not be first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, refusing to elaborate further on widespread reports that it has a well-developed nuclear weapons program. Experts estimate that Israel currently has about 200 nuclear missiles.

When the Non-Proliferation Treaty was first approved in 1968, the Johnson administration initially pressured Israel to sign on, threatening to withhold F-4 jet fighters, according to sources cited by Seymour Hersh in “The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy.”

But before long, according to Hersh, the Central Intelligence Agency issued a top-secret finding that Israel had manufactured at least four nuclear bombs. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to press the issue, and Israel eventually received the jet fighters.

Today, Israel believes that its argument against signing the NPT has been strengthened by the determined effort of Iran and Iraq to achieve nuclear capability.

“In the U.S., Western Europe and a lot of other countries there is an understanding that as long as Israel faces a fundamental security threat, there is very little chance Israel is going to sign the NPT,” said Shai Feldman, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Feldman is on leave from the Jaffee Center for Strategic Policies at Tel Aviv University.

To spread this understanding, Israel will be sending a four-member observer delegation to attend the public sessions of the NPT convention, and to buttonhole delegates in the corridors.

The Israeli team will include Ambassador Yechiel Yativ, posted to the Israeli U.N. mission and former head of the disarmament division of the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Jerusalem. The Foreign Affairs Ministry and the nuclear commission in the Prime Minister’s Office will each send a representative.

The team’s goal is “to diffuse some of the misunderstandings and to make the maximum number of delegations understand our very unique situation,” said Ya’acobi.

“The majority of countries understand very well the nature of Iran, Iraq and Libya,” he said.

“We are the only country in the world that is being threatened directly and by three countries, two of which are in the process of acquiring nuclear armaments and which are having a state of war with the State of Israel.

“Iran is behind the fundamentalist terror, and Iraq just three years ago launched missiles on the State of Israel. It’s proof we are facing a state of war,” Ya’acobi said.

This understanding has not stopped countries from continuing to urge Israel to sign the treaty. Earlier this month, British Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd urged Israel to sign in a meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

“They are holding this position, but they cannot impose it on us,” said Ya’acobi.

In an effort to tone down the rhetoric with Egypt, Israel has made a promise to begin negotiations on creating a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction — once there is a comprehensive regional peace that includes Iran, Iraq and Libya.

After the establishment of such a zone, Israel has said it would consider signing all the related global treaties.

Israel is particularly pleased by President Clinton’s recent public statement on the issue, which basically echoed the Israeli position.

In a news conference following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on April 5, Clinton said he believed “that the Middle East should be free of all weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, biological, chemical.”

“We realize that we deal with the history and the facts of the countries as we find them, that it cannot be done overnight. But that must be our goal, and we must be working on that,” Clinton said.

Ya’acobi said he was “very encouraged” upon reading Clinton’s statement.

According to Feldman, Israel is not merely postponing the problem to some unlikely future.

“It’s serious,” said Feldman of the Israeli position, which he says is designed to compensate for two faults of the NPT.

“The advantage of a regional zone is that it doesn’t isolate the nuclear issue from other weapons of mass destruction,” said Feldman.

“It also enables regions to develop their own way to determine verification. It doesn’t confine countries to verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency — as does NPT — but allow them to establish, perhaps, a regional verification body,” said Feldman.

The international atomic watchdog agency, which for years failed to discover Iraq’s nuclear program, is again under fire for failing to inspect adequately that country’s weapons program.

Earlier this month, Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reportedly gave credence to evidence, obtained by the Sunday Times of London, which documented Iraq’s clandestine nuclear development program.

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