The UN nuclear watchdog chief said Friday that he sees "momentum" for his plan to host rare talks between Israel and Arab states about his efforts to rid the world of atomic arms.
Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said he aimed to convene a discussion forum on the issue for Middle East countries later this year, saying November was a "reasonable timeframe."
Participants would debate lessons learnt and relevant experience for the Middle East from the establishment of nuclear weapons free zones in other parts of the world, such as in Africa and Latin America.
Israel and some Arab states have signaled readiness to take part in the meeting, seen as a way to start dialogue and help build badly needed confidence in the region, diplomats say.
Arab states have criticized Israel over its assumed nuclear arsenal, while Israel and the United States see Iran as the region's main proliferation threat.
"A nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East will not be achieved tomorrow, everyone knows it, but we can get closer," Amano told Reuters on Friday.
"Increasing confidence is very much needed, even a small step is helpful. I hope that we can host a forum this year," he added.
One senior diplomat from a country expected to join the discussions stressed that no decisions would be taken.
"It is not a negotiation forum and not a decision-making one. But we think of it as a first step which might be followed with other steps," the envoy said.
IAEA member states decided in 2000 that such a meeting should be held but until now the parties involved have been unable to agree on the agenda and other issues.
"My predecessor had consultations for 10 years, I continued it and gradually this momentum was created," said Amano, a Japanese diplomat who succeeded Mohamed ElBaradei in late 2009.
"If we can have this forum, this is the first time in 10 years that Arab states and Israel sit around the same table and learn from the experience of the other nuclear weapons free zones," the IAEA chief said.
But diplomats warned that Israel might have second thoughts about attending if Arab states pressed ahead with plans to target it at an annual IAEA member state gathering next month.
As in previous years, Arab states are expected to put forward a resolution at the Sept. 19-23 General Conference calling on Israel to join a global anti-nuclear weapons treaty.
It is unclear whether the General Conference, a meeting of the IAEA's 151 member states held in September each year, would back the move. Last year it narrowly rejected a similar Arab text.
The United States and its Western allies say the Arab push may undermine broader steps to ban atomic arms in the region.They have warned that targeting Israel could jeopardize an Egyptian-proposed conference in 2012 to discuss creating a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
"Israel might not attend (Amano's planned forum with Arab states) if the resolution is adopted," one diplomat said.
Israel is widely believed to hold the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal and is also the only country in the region outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Arab states, backed by Iran, say this poses a threat to peace and stability. They want Israel to subject all its atomic facilities to IAEA monitoring.
Israel, which has never confirmed or denied having atom bombs, says it would only join the pact if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace. If it signed the NPT, the country would have to renounce nuclear weaponry.
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