VIENNA, July 4: The head of the UN nuclear watchdog, Mohamed ElBaradei, goes to Israel on Tuesday to try to persuade the Jewish state to open up its nuclear programme, but officials said Israel was not ready to scrap its atomic arsenal.

Under its policy of "strategic ambiguity", Israel neither admits nor denies having nuclear weapons. But it is assumed to have up to 200 warheads, based on estimates of the amount of plutonium Israeli reactors have produced.

While no breakthroughs are expected, one western diplomat close to the IAEA said ElBaradei would meet senior Israeli officials, possibly including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky said it would be partly a "routine visit", but added that ElBaradei intended "to promote the concept of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East" - clearly the central point of his talks.

Israel welcomes the idea of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction but says disarmament has to come after peace has been achieved in the region, which has been plagued by violence and conflict for decades.

"We need ... to rid the Middle East of all weapons of mass destruction," ElBaradei said recently. "Israel agrees with that, but they say it has to be after peace agreements.

My proposal is maybe we need to start to have a parallel dialogue on security at the same time when we're working on the peace process." A diplomat close to the IAEA went even further: "No Middle East peace process can work until we deal with the issue of weapons of mass destruction."

Until recently, diplomats in Vienna said ElBaradei might try to persuade Israel to acknowledge it has nuclear weapons as a first step towards disarmament. But Israeli officials and diplomats in Vienna now say this will not happen.

'THREATS' TO ISRAEL: Asked if Israel was ready to abandon its strategic ambiguity policy, a senior Israeli official told Reuters: "Absolutely not. The policy has served the country well for decades against very hostile Middle East neighbours.

Only when that regional situation improves can we seriously consider a change of policy." Britain's Foreign Secretary Jack Straw told BBC Radio Four that a nuclear weapons-free Middle East would only be possible when the Arab and Islamic countries' threat to Israel was gone.

"Then we can put a great deal more pressure on Israel to abandon its undoubted nuclear weapons programme, which has been there ... for defensive purposes," Straw said in comments published on the BBC Web site.

Analysts said the timing of the trip was significant. First of all, the Middle East peace process has stalled. Secondly, the international community is increasingly suspicious of the atomic programme of Iran, a declared enemy of Israel, and other Middle East states have demanded that the IAEA put pressure on Israel.

Analysts cited fears in the Middle East that Israel has been given special treatment by its ally the United States. Tehran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful but has been subjected to intense IAEA scrutiny because of US-led allegations that it is secretly pursuing the bomb in breach of NPT obligations. -Reuters

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