VIENNA Arab states will refrain from targeting Israel over its assumed nuclear arsenal at a global meeting of U.N. atomic agency member countries next week, diplomats say, an unexpected gesture of restraint sure to be welcomed by the West.
It 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 this month, a move opposed by Washington.
An Arab envoy 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?" he said. The decision taken at an Arab foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo this week was a "huge step" and it was a "very tough" one to make, he added.
The envoy said the change of plan should be seen as a confidence-building measure to foster wider efforts to create a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. Another Arab diplomat called it a "good gesture" ahead of the planned 2012 meeting.
As in the past two years, Arab nations had been expected to submit a resolution at a September 19-23 annual gathering of the 151 member states of the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog summoning Israel to join a global anti-nuclear treaty.
The Jewish state 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 zeroing in on Israel 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.
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.
The Arab envoy said he expected the West and Israel to respond positively to the decision to "freeze" the resolution.
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 for purposes of electricity generation only, but its restrictions on IAEA inspections and stonewalling of IAEA investigations have fanned suspicions abroad.
At the 2009 annual General Conference of the IAEA member states, they approved in a close vote an Arab resolution expressing concern at "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.
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.
(Editing by Alison Williams)