On Monday, the Health Ministry presented the members of the Knesset's science committee with a proposal for a bill that would outlaw cloning experimentation for the purpose of reproduction, but would allow the cloning of embryonic stem cells for medical purposes. The strange thing is that Israel's representative at the UN voted last month, along with the United States, in favor of formulating a treaty that would impose a sweeping ban on cloning, even for the purposes of research and medicine.

Foreign Ministry sources say that the vote at the UN was merely procedural and that Israel is likely to vote against the United States when the international body holds a substantial discussion on the issue.

The chair of the Knesset's science committee, MK Melli Polishuk-Bloch of Shinui, however, is not convinced, and terms the Israeli vote "ridiculous." Israeli scientists, meanwhile, are warning of a threat to their research.

Work on human embryonic stem cells has been stirring up storms ever since publication in 1998 of an article by Dr. Jamie Thomson of the University of Wisconsin and Professor Yoseph Itskovitz of the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology's medical school that describes the procedure of producing embryonic stem cells.

Embryonic stem cells are produced six days after an ovum is fertilized by a sperm cell. Stem cells are special because in contrast to other cells, the stem cells have yet "to decide what they want to be when they grow up." In other words, the stem cells can become any body tissue cell - cartilage cells, skin cells, heart muscle tissue cells and so on.

The potential of these cells, therefore, is enormous; and scientists are hoping that in the future, it will be possible to instruct these cells to form a specific tissue type, cultivate them, and then implant them in individuals whose natural tissue is not functioning properly.

Embryonic stem cells are produced from cells fertilized for couples who are undergoing fertility treatments, and the couples are entitled to instruct that these fertilized cells be destroyed. Now, scientists are asking the couples not to discard the cells, but to allow them to be cultivated for an additional three days up until the stage at which it is possible to produce the embryonic stem cells.

The conservative American position, which some countries even term extreme, argues that producing and cloning embryonic stem cells, even for research purposes, is tantamount to killing a living embryo because the stem cells are produced from a six-day old embryo - despite the fact that the embryo is destined to be destroyed anyway.

Since 2000, with the support and encouragement of devout Christian groups and anti-abortion organizations, the United States has been calling for an international treaty that would impose a sweeping ban on the cloning of embryonic stem cells. The U.S. position is supported by the Vatican and Catholic countries such as Costa Rica, Ireland, Italy and others.

A large number of countries, however, are opposed to the U.S. position. They argue that at this stage of the scientific advancement, there should be no sweeping ban, and no ban on research into the issue in particular. These countries want to postpone the discussion on an international treaty for another two years.

The relevant Israeli law, which expires next month, bans cloning for reproductive purposes, but permits embryonic stem cell cloning for medical and research purposes. Furthermore, Israel is considered one of the international centers in the field of research into embryonic stem cells, and has chalked up numerous achievements in the field.

Last month, the UN's legal committee voted on the question of when such a treaty would be formulated, with 174 countries taking part in the ballot. Under pressure, Israel decided to support the position of the United States, which is leading a move that contradicts Israeli law. Moreover, in its bill, which comes to replace the law that is about to expire, the Health Ministry reiterates its position that there should be a ban on cloning for reproductive purposes, but not for purposes of research and medicine.

The result of the UN vote was a slap in the face for the Americans, whose proposal was rejected by a single ballot - 80 to 79.

According to Polishuk-Bloch, "The American approach is extreme and hypocritical. It is ridiculous for Israel to support such a position. The Americans are also opposed to abortions. Are we going to support this too?"

Polishuk-Bloch says Israel should support the European position, which opposes cloning of humans, but supports cloning for research purposes.

Attorney Adi Sheinman of the Foreign Ministry's legal department has represented Israel at the UN discussions on the issue; she says that the Israel vote last month was merely procedural. "The question that was discussed was whether they will deal with the formulation of the treaty now or in two years' time. Over and above the legal and moral considerations, there are also political considerations, and the procedural decision has no influence on the substantial issue."

The United States, meanwhile, is encouraged by the fact that its position was defeated by a single vote only; and it is currently renewing its efforts to pass a resolution that will require formulation of the treaty now, and not two years down the line.

Attorney Sheinman claims that when the administrative discussions are completed and the substantial deliberations begin, Israel will adopt a more independent position. "The Israeli positions are based on Israeli law," she says.

At a conference held yesterday at Haifa University's International Center for Health, Law and Ethics, Prof. Itskovitz and other researchers defined the Israeli vote as miserable. "Bush, our friend, is a conservative Republican, and he needs the votes of the radical Christians to be reelected in a year's time," Itskovitz said. "In the event he isn't elected and the Democrats take power, the support for the research will be renewed."

Nevertheless, Itskovitz admits that if the UN formulates a treaty that opposes cloning for research purposes, it could have a dramatic influence on studies in Israel - that is, if the European Union decides to line up with the UN position.