VIENNA Israel welcomed as a "positive" move a decision by Arab states not to target the Jewish state with a resolution over its assumed nuclear arsenal at a global meeting of the U.N. atomic agency on Friday.
Arab delegations described this as a "goodwill" gesture ahead of talks later this year on efforts to free the world of nuclear weapons and an Egyptian-proposed conference in 2012 on creating a zone without such arms in the Middle East.
They said they would not submit a text entitled "Israeli Nuclear Capabilities" for a vote at this week's annual member state meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as they had in 2009 and 2010.
There was a rare conciliatory exchange between Israeli and Arab envoys during an otherwise heated plenary debate at the Vienna-based agency's General Conference, which has 151 members, that once again highlighted deep Israeli-Arab divisions.
Israel is widely believed to harbor the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, drawing frequent Arab and Iranian condemnation. The Jewish state is the only Middle East country outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
Israel and the United States regard Iran -- and to a lesser extent Syria -- as the region's main proliferation threats, accusing Tehran of seeking to develop a nuclear arms capability in secret.
At the IAEA's annual meetings in the previous two years, Arab states put forward a non-binding but symbolically important draft resolution that called on Israel to join the NPT and place all its atomic sites under agency supervision.
It was approved in 2009 and then re-submitted last year to keep up the pressure on Israel. But it was defeated the second time around after intense lobbying by the United States, which argued that zeroing in on Israel would undermine wider efforts to ban nuclear weapons in the volatile Middle East.
In a surprise move, Arab countries decided last week not to push ahead with the text again this year, saying this was to give a better chance for the planned November 21-22 discussions and the 2012 meeting to succeed.
Hosted by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, the forum in two months' time will focus on the experience of other regions in the world which have set up zones free of weapons of mass destruction, including Africa and Latin America.
Arab states, Israel and other countries are expected to attend the talks, which are regarded as a way to kick-start a dialogue and help generate some badly needed confidence.
But few expect any substantial progress, with one Vienna-based diplomat saying there was not a "great deal" of optimism.
In a statement read by Lebanon's envoy, the Arab group said it had decided not to submit the Israeli resolution this year "for the sake of giving yet another final chance to ongoing international efforts (toward creating a Middle East free of nuclear weapons) as well as a goodwill gesture from us."
An Israeli representative, while condemning "political diatribes" against his country made even though it was "gravely threatened by the alarming proliferation developments" in the Middle East, nevertheless welcomed the Arab move.
"We have cautiously defined it as a positive move," David Danieli, deputy director general of Israel's Atomic Energy Organization, told Reuters, using similar language as in his statement to the conference.
But, he added, it is also a "tactical" and a "very partial" decision as Arab states had signaled they had only postponed it until next year's IAEA conference.
Earlier, IAEA states adopted a resolution calling on all countries in the Middle East to join the NPT, without naming any state. Israel and the United States abstained in the vote.
Israel has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons under a policy of ambiguity to deter numerically superior foes.
Arab states, backed by Iran, say Israel's stance poses a threat to regional peace and stability.
As a result of Israel's refusal to place its atomic sites under IAEA monitoring "tensions keep escalating which might lead to an arms race in the Middle East with unpredictable consequences," the Arab group said in its statement.
Israel says it would only join the NPT if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace with its longtime Arab and Iranian adversaries. If it signed the 1970 pact, Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry.
Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the IAEA, said he hoped the Arab decision not to table a resolution on Israel this year signaled a new beginning.
"The United States of America believes the time has come to put this issue behind us for the sake of true progress toward our shared goal of a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction," Davies told delegates.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)