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Arabs to avoid targeting Israel at U.N. atom meeting

Sep 15, 2011, 11:02 a.m.

By Fredrik Dahl

VIENNA (Reuters) - Arab states will refrain from targeting Israel over its assumed nuclear arsenal at a global meeting of U.N. atomic agency member countries next week, diplomats say, an unexpected gesture of restraint sure to be welcomed by the West.

It would be a rare conciliatory move in the volatile Middle East, where Israeli-Arab tension has risen in recent weeks over a pending Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations this month, a move opposed by Washington.

An Arab envoy said the decision not to single out Israel was designed to give "more room" for two planned meetings to succeed -- an International Atomic Energy Agency-hosted forum in November on nuclear weapons-free zones, to be attended by Arab states and Israel, and an Egyptian-proposed conference in 2012 to discuss creating such a zone in the Middle East.

"Why not give it a chance?" he said. The decision taken at an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo this week was a "huge step" and it was a "very tough" one to make, he added.

The envoy said the change of plan should be seen as a confidence-building measure to foster wider efforts to create a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Another Arab diplomat called it a "good gesture" ahead of the planned 2012 meeting.

As in the past two years, Arab nations had been expected to submit a resolution at a September 19-23 annual gathering of the 151 member states of the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog summoning Israel to join a global anti-nuclear treaty.

The Jewish state is widely believed to be the only nuclear weapons power in the Middle East although the West accuses Iran of covertly seeking the capability to develop atomic bombs.

The United States and its Western allies say a non-binding but symbolically significant IAEA resolution zeroing in on Israel could undermine broader steps aimed at banning weapons of mass destruction in the region.

Western diplomats said Arab envoys to the IAEA had told them they now did not plan to put forward the text this year. "If true, obviously we would welcome it," one of them said.

DIPLOMATIC BATTLE

But one European ambassador said there had not yet been a formal announcement from the group of Arab nations at the IAEA about the issue, suggesting their position might still shift before next week. "I'm still a bit nervous," he said.

The Arab envoy said he expected the West and Israel to respond positively to the decision to "freeze" the resolution.

Israel has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons under a policy of ambiguity to deter numerically superior foes. It is the only country in the Middle East outside the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Arab states backed by Iran say Israel's stance poses a threat to regional peace and stability. They want Israel to subject all its nuclear facilities to IAEA monitoring.

Israel says it would only join the pact if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace with its longtime Arab and Iranian adversaries. If it signed the NPT, Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry.

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