Filed at 10:51 a.m. ET
VIENNA (AP) — Israel accused the head of the U.N. atomic agency of political bias in its probe of Syria Thursday, provoking a bitter response by the agency chief.
The unprecedented open clash provided a glimpse of tensions on issues that tear away at the public show of unity at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In a closed meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation board, Israeli delegate Israel Michaeli criticized agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei for repeatedly focusing on Israel in reports on the probe into Syria’s suspected nuclear activities. Michaeli also accused ElBaradei of refusing to meet Israeli officials to discuss the issue.
The IAEA probe was launched after Israeli jets destroyed what the U.S. says was a nearly finished nuclear reactor built with North Korean help that was configured to produce plutonium — one of the substances used in nuclear warheads. ElBaradei has repeatedly criticized the attack.
Diplomats inside the meeting described ElBaradei’s reaction to Michaeli’s comments as furious.
”Don’t you preach to us,” the diplomats cited ElBaradei as saying. They were speaking on condition of anonymity because it was a closed gathering.
One of the diplomats said the atmosphere was electric, with the two interlocutors locked for minutes in a staring contest.
A partially edited transcript of ElBaradei’s comments provided later by the agency quoted him as saying that the Israeli strike was ”a clear violation of international law.”
”I refer to Israel and I will continue to refer to Israel, because you are the one who has bombed the facility — unless you tell me that you haven’t,” the transcript said.
Syria denies hiding nuclear activities but has blocked the probe, refusing to allow U.N. nuclear inspectors follow-up visits beyond one last year and declining to provide satisfactory explanations for unusual finds of traces of uranium.
The dispute Thursday was nominally over Israel’s role but the heated exchange was an indication of broader problems between Israel, ElBaradei and the way his agency is conducting probes of Syria and Iran.
Damascus alleges that Israel used bombs or missiles containing depleted uranium — which hardens metal and allows it to penetrate deeper — in attacking the site. That, says Syria, accounts for one instance of the uranium traces.
But ElBaradei has said that is unlikely, and Israel has repeatedly told the IAEA it did not use such ordnance — something Michaeli repeated in his comments Thursday.
”Israel has responded … in good faith” to the allegations, he said, in comments to the closed meeting made available to The Associated Press. ”Therefore, the repeated call by the director general on Israel to cooperate with this investigation is redundant.
”Had the director general wished for further information from Israel, he would have not refused to meet with Israeli officials and refrained from publicly lashing (out) at Israel.
”Israel calls on the director general to avoid political bias in dealing with the Syrian file.”
While diplomats from nations allied with Israel occasionally suggest there is IAEA bias in favor of Iran and Syria, they normally do so only on condition of anonymity, in keeping with diplomatic convention that dictates that U.N agencies and its heads are above the political fray, at least publicly.
According to the transcript, ElBaradei justified his refusal to meet with Israeli officials except Michaeli, saying they had made ”cheap” public statements about him that ended up ”in the waste basket.”
He appeared to be alluding to public criticism by Israel of the way he was running the agency.
Diplomats first told the AP that ElBaradei was boycotting requests for meetings with Israel officials earlier this year. The agency back then refused to comment.
ElBaradei has been under attack previously on conceptions of bias.
Overt U.S. opposition to him ended four years ago when IAEA member nations formally approved his reappointment for a third term. Still Western diplomats speaking privately occasionally fault him for acting beyond his mandate without consulting the board, the agency’s decision-making body.
Much of the U.S. opposition stemmed from Washington’s perception that he was being too soft on Iran for not unequivocally declaring it in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
He also refused to endorse Washington’s contention that Iran was working to make nuclear weapons and disputed U.S. assertions that Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq had an active atomic weapons program — both claims that remain unproven, despite growing suspicions about Tehran’s nuclear agenda.