Criticism of Israel at Bay as IAEA Opens First Meet on Nuclear-free Mideast

Israeli representatives report relative calm at Vienna conference, after chief of UN's nuclear watchdog urges Mideast nations to focus on 'fresh thinking.'

The first meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency dealing with a nuclear-free Middle East assembled in Vienna on Monday, with Israeli representatives describing the Arab nations' criticism of Israeli nuclear policy as unexpectedly sedate.

As a result of Iran's boycotting of the meeting, the most critical of the Arab IAEA members was Syria, whose representative depicted Israel's alleged undeclared nuclear arsenal as a "grave and serious threat."

IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano - Reuters - 07112011

But officials reporting on the closed meeting said that except for Syria and Lebanon, its lockstep ally, other Arab nations speaking at the meeting were lower-key than usual in chastising Israel refusing to open its nuclear program to UN perusal.

One Israeli official, who agreed to speak under conditions of anonymity said the atmosphere was "much less confrontational, much less hostile" than at other IAEA gatherings focused on the Middle East, which traditionally see Muslim nations speaking with one strongly critical voice about Israel's nuclear capabilities.

A spokesperson for Israel Atomic Energy Commission told Haaretz that Israel decided to go ahead with the special meeting after it was decided discussion would.

Israel's traditional position is that a serious discussion of a nuclear-free Mideast would only take place after certain ground rules were established, such as a recognition of Israel by the Arab states, as well as peace agreements that would include security arrangements and an agreement on regional disarmament from nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

The session is not expected to reach any decisions, but serves as a precedence by having taken place.

In toning down their comments, most Mideast participants at the 97-nation meeting appeared to be heeding an appeal by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano.

In opening remarks made available to reporters, Amano urged Mideast nations to focus on "fresh thinking," adding he hoped they would be able to move "beyond simply restating long-established positions."

Officials and participants warned against high expectations at the gathering, which is hearing presentations on already established nuclear-free zones elsewhere as a way of stimulating discussion on the Middle East and is not meant to reach any decisions.

A decision last year by the 189 members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation treaty to convene a UN-sponsored conference on establishing a Middle East nuclear-free zone in 2012 was an incentive for most of the region's Muslim nations to meet this year with Israel for the exploratory Vienna talks.