Israel responds to Libya surprise

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, left, greets Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher in Jerusalem, Dec. 23. Maher was expected to raise the issue of Israel's nuclear capability with Israeli leaders. (Israel Hadari/HO)

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, left, greets Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher in Jerusalem, Dec. 23. Maher was expected to raise the issue of Israel’s nuclear capability with Israeli leaders. (Israel Hadari/HO)

JERUSALEM, Dec. 22 (JTA) — Libya’s announcement that it would end its capacity for developing weapons of mass destruction brought both relief and concern to Israel: relief that an implacable enemy was apparently moderating its outlook, concern that Israel would come under pressure to end its own reported nuclear capability. After nine months of secret negotiations with Britain and the United States — and years of crippling sanctions — Libya announced last Friday that it welcomed international inspections and pledged to destroy whatever capabilities it had. President Bush said the agreement would bring Libya back into the “community of nations.” In agreeing to sign what is known as the additional protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, Libya must now allow for tougher, short-notice visits of nuclear sites by officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran signed the same protocol last week. It is believed that Libya does not have atomic bombs, but was close to developing a nuclear weapons capability. Addressing the Herzliya security conference last week, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said, “An eye must be kept on Libya.” The United States and Israel have been discussing Libya’s nuclear program since May 2002. On a number of occasions, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned that Libya might become a nuclear power even ahead of Iran. The good news from Libya won praise around the world. Even Israel, usually cautious about Arab peace overtures, joined the choir. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom praised the move at the weekly Cabinet session. Mofaz was more reserved, taking a “wait-and-see” approach, and gave the credit for the Libyan action to “American determination and the capture of Saddam Hussein.” Mofaz used the opportunity to point at what Israel perceived as the real threat in the region — Iran. “Iran’s agreement for inspections does not mean that it has given up its nuclear project,” said Mofaz. Israel is concerned that while the United States was concentrating its efforts on preventing Russian nuclear aid to Iran, Iran had quietly equipped itself with equipment and know-how from another nuclear power — Pakistan. Still, the Israeli intelligence community was relieved. “The very fact that Libya will stop dealing with ballistic and strategic weapons as well as nuclear threats means a serious load off the strategic threat over Israel,” said retired Maj. Gen. Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, a former army intelligence official now at Tel Aviv University. Libya operates a Soviet-supplied research reactor at the Tajura Nuclear Research Center, located about 40 miles east of Tripoli. The 10-megawatt reactor started operation in 1983 and is open to international inspection. Libya already had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, but the United States suspected that Libya was determined to find ways to build the bomb. So why the change of course? Yehudit Ronen of the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University suggested that Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi had realized that the only way to preserve his regime is to drastically improve his country’s economy. Such improvement is not possible without removing the economic sanctions imposed on Libya and renewing normal relations with the United States. Contrary to his image, Ronen said, “Gadhafi is not at all a lunatic.” Gadhafi’s concession was the latest stroke in a picture of a new, less threatening neighborhood for Israel. Iraq’s strategic threat has been defused, Iran has also accepted international supervision over its nuclear programs and Syria’s President Hafez Assad is suggesting a return to the peace table. Israelis were nonetheless braced for new pressures to sign on to the nuclear treaty. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was quick to demand that Israel, too, give up its alleged nuclear potential. “I have raised the issue several times with Israeli leaders such as Shimon Peres and they told me once the conflict is over, there will be no need for mass destruction weapons,” he said. “I hope the conflict goes in the direction of a solution.” Mubarak’s foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, visiting Jerusalem this week for the first time in two years, was expected to raise the issue in his talks with Israeli leaders. For its part, a top Iranian official said that “it was time for the world to exert similar pressure on Israel — the main threat in the region.” Israel’s official policy supports “a nuclear-free zone in the region,” but only as part of a gradual and long-term process, after a regional peace has been achieved. Israelis were closely watching whether the United States would link the Libyan and Iranian agreements to demands for Israel to open up its nuclear facilities to inspection. So far, that looked unlikely. White House spokesman Scott McClellan refused to be drawn into linkages between Israel and Libya. “The long-held position of the United States is the universal adherence to the Nonproliferation Treaty, McClellan said Monday, but “in terms of specifics about the Israeli government, you need to refer those questions to the Israeli government.” Israel, meanwhile, is closely watching discussions among senior U.S. officials about a possible re-evaluation of the proposed international treaty to freeze the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, meaning high- level plutonium and enriched uranium. The proposed Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty is directed mainly at reining in the nuclear programs of Israel, India and Pakistan, which have all opted out of international monitoring. So far, Israel has opposed the treaty, describing it as “a danger to its security.” Gerald Steinberg, an Israeli analyst, said that Israel was committed never to using such weapons first — and should therefore not be held to the same level of scrutiny. “Calls on Israel to follow suit ignore the fact that, unlike Libya and Iran, Israel is not an NPT signatory and has not violated any of its international obligations,” Steinberg wrote this week in an item for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “As long as Iranian and other leaders continue to seek Israel’s elimination, Israel remains the only country in the Middle East whose physical existence is still threatened by states seeking weapons of mass destruction.”

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