Finland's Undersecretary of State for Foreign Affairs visited Jerusalem secretly last week for talks with Israeli counterparts about Israel's involvement in a conference to ban nuclear arms from the Middle East. Two years ago Israel voiced opposition to such a conference.
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty conference is scheduled to be held in Helsinki in December but could be deferred until 2013. The main item on the agenda is likely to be attempts made by Arab states and Iran to curb Israel's nuclear capability.
Israel wants to coordinate its positions with the United States. The Americans support the staging of such a conference. They are worried that its cancelation could serve as a pretext to undermine their efforts to promote the NPT, and could erode U.S. President Barack Obama's vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world.
However, during last week's meetings with Finland's Jaakko Laajava - the NPT conference coordinator - Israeli representatives neither agreed nor refused to participate in the disarmament talks in Finland.
Laajava met with an Israeli team of officials headed by Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General Jeremy Issacharoff. Representatives from Israel's National Security Council and the Atomic Energy Commission also took part in the talks.
Issacharoff and his colleagues voiced reservations about the conference's timing. They claimed it should not be held until regimes in the region, particularly in Egypt and Syria, stabilize.
Issacharoff is coordinating the Foreign Ministry's handling of the Iranian nuclear issue. As a sign of Israel's reservations about the conference, discussions with Laajava have been held by professional diplomats, rather than by senior officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government such as Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Minister Dan Meridor, who represented the government at a nuclear security conference held in Seoul last month. In other countries, Laajava has met with higher-ranking figures. For instance, he met in Tehran in January with Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
The decision to proceed with the conference, despite Israel's opposition, is incorporated in an agreement document issued by the treaty's fifth annual review conference, held in New York in May 2010. The U.S. State Department expressed "deep regret" about an anti-Israel clause that appeared in this document, and Israel protested its inclusion. Still the document was not repealed.
The Obama administration has pursued a successful tactic of delaying the convening of the Middle East conference until the end of 2012, and after the upcoming presidential elections.
Since his appointment in October as coordinator of the Helsinki conference, Laajava has held dozens of meetings with UN officials and with representatives of countries that have permanent membership in the UN Security Council and of countries in this region. He has met two or three times with Israeli diplomats.
Laajava, who competed for this NPT post against a Dutch diplomat, was appointed to coordinate the disarmament conference by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and by three of the five permanent Security Council members - the United States, Russia and Britain. At the fifth NPT annual conference in 1995, these three countries sponsored a proposal for the establishment of the Middle East as a region free of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
Israel, which was busy at the time with the Oslo Accords peace process, agreed in principle with this proposal, but predicated its application on the arrangement of a comprehensive peace accord, and upon a definition of the Middle East that would include countries not contiguous with it, particularly Iraq and Iran.
The idea, also discussed at the 2000 and 2005 review conferences, gained momentum two years ago, when the Arab League, headed by Egypt, harnessed itself to Obama's enthusiasm for disarmament issues. During the last day of the 2010 conference, the United States assented to Egypt's demand for the holding of a regional disarmament conference in 2012.
U.S. officials fear that failure during this Helsinki meeting will reinforce forces in countries that are considering pulling out of the NPT framework.
Under the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt led the campaign to compel Israel to join NPT frameworks and to initiate disarmament discussions that relate simultaneously to Israel and Iran.
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