Dimona nuclear reactor - Archive
An aerial view of Israel's nuclear reactor in Dimona. Photo by (Archive)
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Arab states will refrain from targeting Israel over its assumed nuclear arsenal at a global meeting of UN atomic agency member countries next week, diplomats said on Thursday, an unexpected gesture of restraint sure to be welcomed by the West.

This 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 later this month, a move opposed by Washington.

A senior Arab diplomat 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?" the Arab envoy said. The decision was taken at an Arab foreign ministers meeting in Cairo this week and it was a "very tough" one to make, he said.

Two Arab envoys accredited to the IAEA told Reuters the change of plan should be seen as a "confidence-building measure" and "good gesture from Arab states" to foster wider efforts to create a Middle East free of nuclear weapons.

As in 2009 and 2010, Arab nations had been expected to submit a resolution at a Sept. 19-23 annual gathering of member states of the Vienna-based UN nuclear watchdog summoning Israel to join a global anti-nuclear treaty.

Israel 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 singling out Israel for blame 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.

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.

A Middle East free of nuclear arms is "an important and achievable goal, but it is not one that can be achieved quickly or absent progress toward ... a comprehensive peace in the region," senior U.S. diplomat Robert Wood told a meeting of the IAEA's 35-nation governing board in Vienna on Thursday.

The United States and Israel regard Iran as the Middle East's main nuclear proliferation threat. Tehran says its nuclear program is peaceful and only for the generation of electricity, but its restrictions on IAEA inspections and stonewalling of IAEA investigations have fanned suspicions abroad.

At the 2009 annual General Conference of the IAEA's 151 member states, they approved in a close vote an Arab resolution expressing concern over "Israeli Nuclear Capabilities".

Brought up again last year to keep up pressure on Israel, it was defeated after a bruising diplomatic battle, in which Washington and its allies lobbied intensively against the text.

Arab states already in June asked for "Israeli Nuclear Capabilities" to be put on the agenda of this year's meeting, but they have not circulated any draft resolution on the issue.

One Western envoy said the Arab states may have decided not to submit it this year as it was likely to be voted down again.