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Israel Spurns Quartet's Overture

Charisa Coulter, middle, of Meridian, Idaho, one of two US Baptist missionaries held on kidnapping charges in Haiti, arrives to the airport, accompanied by US embassy staff, after her release from jail in Port-au-Prince, Monday, March 8, 2010.
AP Photo/Esteban Felix
Israeli officials are refusing to meet a group of Mideast mediators who are in the region to discuss Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, officials said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Israel is extremely concerned about Iran's nuclear ambitions, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog agency said Wednesday, an indication that the issue is preventing any change in Israel's nuclear policy.

"They're expressing concern about Iran," Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said after talks with senior officials at Israel's secretive nuclear energy agency, the Israel Atomic Energy Commission/.

Also Wednesday, an Israeli drone fired a missile at a car traveling in northern Gaza City, lightly wounding three bystanders, Palestinian hospital and security officials said. Hamas said in a statement its members were in the car, but escaped unharmed.

The apparent airstrike came hours after Palestinian militants fired two rockets toward southern Israel, causing no injuries or damage.

Israel does not want to meet the envoys before making concrete decisions on its own positions. It also wants to meet first with two White House officials coming to Israel later this week, government officials said on condition of anonymity.

Representatives of the so-called Quartet — made up of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia — were meeting with Palestinian officials on Wednesday.

The group is trying to push forward the Gaza withdrawal plan. It hopes the pullout will be the first step of the internationally backed "road map" peace plan.

The refusal to meet with the envoys was the latest sign that Israel is distancing itself from the road map, a broad peace place that envisions the formation of an independent Palestinian state through direct negotiations with Israel.

ElBaradei is pressing Israel to dismantle its alleged arsenal of atomic weapons and create a nuclear-free Middle East, reports CBS News Correspondent Robert Berger. Israel is thought to be the only state in the Middle East possessing nuclear weapons.

ElBaradei has suggested that the Israelis should at least consider loosening their taboo on talking about nuclear arms as part of any long-term Middle East settlement that would rid the region of such weapons.

However, Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg doesn't think Israel's veil of secrecy will change.

"Israel will say 'until a better alternative comes, until there's peace, this is the best we can do,'" Steinberg said.

Experts believe Israel has at least 100 nuclear warheads, but the country will not open its nuclear facility to international inspections.

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 and has failed to clear up suspicions about its aims.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin Powell declined to take a stand Tuesday on whether Israel should be forced to open its reactors to inspection.

But Powell, at a joint news conference with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, renewed his demand for international pressure on Iran to stop what Washington says are attempts to build nuclear arms.

While ElBaradei was scheduled to meet Sharon Thursday, there were no plans to give him access to Israel's main nuclear facility near Dimona in the southern Negev Desert, which is the suspected center of its nuclear weapons program.

Israel has not signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which would force it to declare itself a weapons state and curb its nuclear activities.

But ElBaradei said he hoped to persuade Israeli leaders to agree to a separate protocol curbing nuclear exports and imports.

Such a move would be mostly symbolic — Israel already has strict export and import commitments — and is seen as an attempt to nudge it toward increased cooperation with the IAEA.