VIENNA (Reuters) - Israel and its Arab neighbors sat in the same room on Monday for rare discussions on banning nuclear weapons in the Middle East, although the meeting was marred by the absence of boycotting Iran.
Participants described the first day of the November 21-22 closed-door forum as less confrontational than the heated rhetoric that usually marks public debate about the sensitive issue, even though both sides largely stuck to old positions.
"The atmosphere is fine," said an Arab diplomat. "It seemed constructive," one European envoy said.
Arab states, especially Syria, took aim at Israel over the atomic arsenal it is widely believed to possess but has never officially confirmed.
For its part, Israel made clear its view that the region was not yet ready to establish a nuclear-weapon-free zone and cited political instability, hostilities, deep mistrust as well as arch-foe Iran's boycott as reasons for this.
"Such a process can only be launched when normal peaceful relations exist in the region, when the threat perception of all regional members is low and only after basic confidence is established among states of the region," senior Israeli official David Danieli was quoted as telling the meeting.
The two-day forum -- hosted by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) -- has been billed as a symbolically significant bid to bring regional foes together at the same venue, although no concrete outcome is expected.
"That both Israel and the Arab states summoned the political will to attend the IAEA session, and thus to allow it finally to take place, was a positive development," said proliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick, a director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank.
If conducted smoothly with relatively toned-down rhetoric on all sides, it could send a positive signal ahead of a planned international conference next year to discuss establishing a zone free of nuclear arms in the Middle East.
Israel, presumed to be the region's only nuclear power and its only country that is not part of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has said it would sign the 1970 pact and renounce nuclear weapons only as part of a broader Middle East peace deal with Arab states and Iran that guaranteed its security.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog suspects Iran may be seeking to develop nuclear weapons, and Western countries fear an arms race in the region.
Iran said it would not take part in the discussions after the IAEA's 35-nation governing board passed a resolution on Friday rebuking it for its atomic activities.
IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, opening Monday's meeting, said he hoped the event "will help to promote dialogue on a nuclear weapon-free zone" in the region.
Iran, which denies there is a military purpose to its nuclear work, has accused Amano of pro-Western bias and of failing to address Israel's presumed atomic arsenal.
The talks focused on the experiences of regions which have set up Nuclear Weapon-Free Zones (NWFZ), including Africa and Latin America, and how the Middle East can learn from them. Representatives of those zones addressed the meeting.
Despite a relatively calm atmosphere in the debate, the content of the statements underlined the deep divisions that would need to be bridged for the vision of a nuclear-weapon-free zone in the Middle East to become reality.
Syria, Lebanon and other Arab countries attacked Israel, either directly or indirectly and called on it to join the NPT, one official who followed the talks said.
Syrian Ambassador Bassam Al-Sabbagh told the meeting that Israel's nuclear capabilities pose a "grave and continuous threat." Other Arab envoys were milder in their statements.
Danieli, deputy director general of Israel's Atomic Energy Organization, said the "essential prerequisites" were still not present for considering a regional nuclear-weapon-free zone, including mutual recognition and normal relations.
"Iran's boycotting of this meeting is one example for the lack of basic regional conditions," he said, according to a participant. Iran does not recognize Israel, which in turn sees Tehran's nuclear program as an existential threat.
Finland has agreed to host a 2012 conference to discuss formally banning nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
The idea for the meeting came from Egypt, which pushed for talks among all states in the region on a nuclear arms-free zone, still seen by many experts as a distant prospect.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)