JERUSALEM (AP) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is ready to discuss a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East as part of future peace talks, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said Thursday.
Mohamed ElBaradei, on a three-day trip to Israel, said Sharon made the commitment during a meeting Thursday in Jerusalem.
"The prime minister affirmed to me that Israeli policy continues to be that in the context of peace in the Middle East, Israel will be looking forward to the establishment of a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East," ElBaradei said.
Such talks are likely far down the road. ElBaradei said that Sharon had linked arms-control talks to progress in the "road map," an internationally backed peace plan that has been stalled since its inception a year ago.
Nonetheless, he said he was pleased by Sharon's comments.
"That's the first time I hear that from the prime minister of Israel," ElBaradei told reporters in Jerusalem. "It's not a new policy, but affirming that policy at the level of prime minister I thought to be quite a welcome development."
Sharon's office did not immediately comment.
ElBaradei was in Israel in efforts to persuade the country to loosen its long-standing taboo on discussing its nuclear capabilities. Israel is believed to be the only country in the Middle East to have nuclear missiles ready to launch.
In the face of overwhelming evidence, ElBaradei was keen for at least tacit acknowledgment that Israel has such arms or the means to make them.
ElBaradei wants Israel to reassert its commitment to discuss arms control, made following a Middle East peace conference in Madrid in 1991. Those efforts fizzled during the mid-1990s.
Israel has not budged from its stance of neither confirming nor denying it has such weapons - a policy it calls the best way to keep Islamic foes from attacking it while denying them the rationale for also seeking nuclear weapons.
In an interview published in Thursday's Haaretz newspaper, ElBaradei said the growing threat of nuclear proliferation has put a new premium on regional security arrangements.
During his visit, ElBaradei said Israel has repeatedly raised concerns about archrival Iran's own nuclear ambitions.
IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky described ElBaradei's "fear for the Middle East" as an important thread of his visit.
He said ElBaradei would be happy to act as an informal bridge between the Islamic world, which resents what it considers unfair international tolerance of Israel's secret nuclear capacities, and Israel, which sees itself as facing "an existential threat" from a far larger enemy.
As part of Israel's pitch for its right to use all means to defend itself, ElBaradei was flown Wednesday over Israel, accompanied by a senior Israeli air force official, said another official familiar with his itinerary.
One point the air force official made was that Israel "has no defensive depth, because a plane can fly from one border to the other in three and a half minutes," said the official, who requested anonymity.
ElBaradei was denied access to Israel's Dimona reactor, said to be the source of plutonium for Israel's alleged weapons program. But the official said that at one point, the plane flew over the southern Negev Desert within sight of the reactor, describing it as a "little brown dot" in the distance.
While declining to go into details about his talks, ElBaradei indicated Wednesday that fear that Tehran was trying to develop nuclear arms was a dominant theme.
ElBaradei's agency is probing nearly two decades of suspect nuclear activities in Iran that the United States, Israel and others say reflect attempts to make such weapons.
Tehran insists it only wants nuclear energy to generate power, but several IAEA reports over the past year have suggested the Islamic Republic has not fully cooperated with agency inspectors.
ElBaradei has suggested that the Israelis should at least consider loosening their "no-show, no-tell" policy on their nuclear capabilities as part of any long-term Middle East settlement that would rid the region of such weapons.
Israel has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would force it to declare itself a weapons state and curb its nuclear activities.
Evidence that Israel has nuclear arms is overwhelming, much of it based on details and pictures leaked in 1986 by Israeli nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, as well as research and statements made by Israeli leaders.
Israel is believed to be the only country in the region to have nuclear missiles ready to launch. Experts say it may already have as many as 300 warheads as well as the capability of building more quickly.
On the Net:
Israel Atomic Energy Commission, www.iaec.gov.il/
International Atomic Energy Agency, www.iaea.org