There was much good humor. When an ambulance went by, siren wailing, the speaker quipped, weakly, that "I hope that's not for me" and the audience chuckled dutifully. He got a much bigger laugh when he noted that he understood the annual budget for his organization to be no larger than "that of the Chelsea football club." When his talk was over, the applause was warm and heartfelt, and as the impeccably tailored, largely upper crust, largely British, overwhelmingly male attendees waited with scrupulous politeness for their turn to take one of the two small, overworked elevators the five floors back down to ground level, there was much agreement that the event had been "jolly good," even "splendid." Overhearing the badinage, the uninitiated would never have guessed that we had just heard the man principally charged with preventing the end of the world acknowledging that he was finding himself increasingly ill-equipped to do so. Mohamed ElBaradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who this weekend will receive the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, didn't phrase the failure quite as starkly as that. But he didn't mince words. Perhaps it was just because his delivery was so genteel, his manner so mild and unthreatening, that the apocalyptic essence of his talk to London's International Institute for Strategic Studies on Tuesday did not terrify. It should have. He noted that at a "Review Conference" earlier this year of the parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, participants "failed to reach any agreement on how to respond to some of the most serious and urgent security threats of our time. What is worse is that at the UN World Summit in September, the final declaration did not even mention nuclear disarmament or non-proliferation. One may legitimately ask whether we are a world in denial." He pointed out that disarmament efforts had failed so signally to reduce nuclear stocks in the years since the Cold War that other countries which sought nuclear arms were redoubling their efforts to attain such a capability, bitterly dismissing the nuclear powers' pressure to dissuade them in much the same way that a rebellious child would reject pressure to stop smoking from parents with lighted cigarettes in their mouths. He spoke of the deepening incentive for countries in regions such as the Middle East, plagued by long-standing conflict, to attain a nuclear capability in order to "achieve security and project power." He observed that access to nuclear technology was increasingly straightforward, with the opportunities to control it grievously hampered by both black market supplies and the growing "dual use" potential of material and expertise - for both peaceful energy and weapons-building purposes. He highlighted the absolute inadequacy of current treaty provisions, under which it was perfectly legal - he actually used the word "kosher" - for nations to maintain enrichment or reprocessing technology, even to maintain stocks of weapons-grade nuclear material. If the "choke point" - the final technological hurdle - for nuclear weapons "is the acquisition of weapons-usable nuclear material," he said, then a country could essentially reach that point even within the terms of the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. And if such a country then decided to break away from its non-proliferation commitments, "a nuclear weapon could be only months away." And he stressed that his IAEA was woefully stretched when it came to ascertaining what potential rogue nations might be up to with their nuclear programs. For years, he said rather wanly, non-proliferation had worked - or rather not worked - by "gentleman's agreement." Countries would disclose what they chose to disclose about their activities, and the IAEA's inspectors would dutifully toddle around the various facilities such countries allowed them to visit, solemnly verifying whatever it was their hosts volunteered to show them - quite incapable of seeing more than those hosts chose to let them see. As a beneficiary of many of these and other inadequacies, he acknowledged, Iran successfully concealed its nuclear program for a full 18 years, and even after three years of catch-up work by the IAEA, there were still "open questions" that only access to military sites, key personnel and vital documentation - which Teheran had yet to provide - would resolve. Although new protocols had given the IAEA more teeth of late, he went on, dozens of countries had yet to accept them. And, in any case, with only that Chelsea-sized funding - an annual $120 million - his agency was already, absurdly, expected to oversee approximately 900 nuclear facilities in 71 countries. It could hardly "stay ahead of the game" on that kind of "shoestring" budget. PLAINLY, THE Egyptian-born ElBaradei's dire message was at least partially offset by his assertion that "the good news is that there may be a solution on the horizon." He set out a phased program under which the United Status, Russia and other international players would provide an "assured supply" of reactor technology and nuclear fuel to countries that were demonstrably seeking nuclear power for solely peaceful, energy, purposes. This supply would have multilateral management, and the oversight would extend to both the "back end" of the fuel cycle (spent fuel reprocessing and waste disposal) and the "front end" (enrichment and fuel production). Given everything he had said about the absence of genuine international will, and money, to counter the nuclear threat it seemed, frankly, bizarre that ElBaradei would evince any confidence in the viability of so complex an arrangement. But insist he did, bridling when, in the question and answer session, the lady from The Times of London wondered delicately if he wasn't being somewhat idealistic. And given the acknowledged impotence of the past two decades on Iran, he also seemed unwarrantably confident in the IAEA's capacity to ascertain what Teheran was now doing, claiming that, within a year, the agency should be able to ascertain the precise nature and scope of the ayatollahs' program. When I asked him whether a year might be too late, he was adamant that no "smoking gun" had been found, and no secret underground enrichment facilities uncovered - only to immediately undermine such definitive statements by noting that the Iranians had yet to answer those "open questions" about their program by affording the IAEA the full access it has been seeking. But maybe his audience dispersed in a chattering hubbub more cheerful than his address could possibly have justified because, there in so-civilized London, nuclear dangers seem so remote, certainly by comparison to our neighborhood. The lady three seats along from me, for one, evidently was not unduly troubled - by nuclear threats or even nuclear realities. I had asked whether Dr. ElBaradei would like to comment on the prospect of Israel being reduced to a military option in a last resort to thwart Iran, and he had replied that he sought to complete his verification processes and hoped for a negotiated solution. She then got up to inquire whether, in this day and age, countries like Iran, evidently under threat from countries such as Israel, might justifiably be allowed to develop and maintain a limited nuclear capability, to reasonably protect themselves from aggressors. ElBaradei, who responded with bland comments about the need for heightened dialogue, either failed to understand, or chose not to understand, the thrust of the query. * * * 'There won't be a mass Likud walkout' In retrospect, perhaps Tzahi Hanegbi's bombshell bolt from the Likud to Ariel Sharon's Kadima embrace should not have come as so much of a surprise. In an interview published here four months ago, after all, just prior to the Gaza pullout, Hanegbi issued a robust defense of Sharon against the criticism that he had misled the public in failing to unveil the disengagement plan in his 2003 election campaign. "You can't accuse Sharon of shedding his skin," Hanegbi said. "Specifically, on the issue of Netzarim, yes, he said its fate should be the same as Tel Aviv's. I didn't understand why he said that at the time and he didn't explain. But he campaigned against Netanyahu [for the Likud leadership] saying that if he was chosen he would lead a process at the end of which there'd be a Palestinian stateâ€¦ [And] he received a mandate for a political line that has not been the classic line of the Likud party since 1967. "Now, he didn't implement that line," Hanegbi went on, "because he didn't have a partner for a Palestinian state. So he went for a unilateral plan." But that, said Hanegbi forgivingly, was a "tactical" rather than a strategic departure. "Everybody in his life makes changes in his positions," Hanegbi said. "Most of the public accepts this as a legitimate aspect of the game." And yet, in that same August interview, Hanegbi staked out positions that, one might have thought, would distance him profoundly from his once, and now future, party leader. For a start, he made plain his firm opposition to Sharon's support for Palestinian statehood: Sharon's "world view" is the establishment of the Palestinian state, the minister said, "and it horrifies me to even think that the Likud voted for this." Personally, he stressed, "I want [the permanent borders of] Israel to include those areas that are massively settled by Jews - the big cities [of Judea and Samaria] - but not only the big cities. There are other security areas of national import like the Jordan Valley where we have an obligation that Israel retain control." And he added that "I could never support the road map" - the diplomatic process to which Sharon repeatedly commits himself. "It's a very dangerous framework," he said. Ironically, Hanegbi forecast that the Likud would heal itself of its internal conflict over disengagement. "I can predict that there won't be a mass walkout from the Likud and that the Likud will continue to function in its classic fashion," he asserted confidently. With similar confidence, he declared that Sharon "doesn't even dream of initiating a second, similar pullback. He won't evacuate a single additional settlement, other than within the framework of an agreement, for which he has said he is prepared to pay a painful price." We shall see.