April 8, 2010 / 9:29 PM / in 8 years

Netanyahu cancels trip to Obama's nuclear summit

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has canceled a planned trip to Washington next week to take part in President Barack Obama’s 47-country nuclear security summit conference.

<p>Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a news conference in his office in Jerusalem April 7, 2010. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun</p>

He made the decision after learning that Egypt and Turkey intended to raise the issue of Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal at the conference, a senior government official said on Friday.

Israel is believed to be the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East but has never confirmed or denied that it possesses atomic weapons. It has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT).

Netanyahu saw Obama at the White House late last month for talks on the stalled Middle East peace process with the Palestinians, but they failed to see eye to eye and relations between the two leaders remain at a low ebb.

“The prime minister has decided to cancel his trip to Washington to attend the nuclear conference next week, after learning that some countries including Egypt and Turkey plan to say Israel must sign the NPT,” the official said.

Israeli media said Netanyahu feared that Islamic countries attending the summit would try to shift its focus from nuclear terrorism to a concerted attack on his country’s presumed nuclear weapons capacity.

UP TO 200 WARHEADS?

Foreign analysts believe Israel has been a secret nuclear power for the past 40 years and may possess a sizeable arsenal.

Based on estimates of the plutonium production capacity of its Dimona reactor in the southern Negev desert, experts say it could have 100-200 advanced nuclear explosive devices.

Dozens of world leaders are due in Washington next week for the unprecedented conference, with Obama hoping they can agree on how to keep atomic bombs out of the hands of terrorists.

A second official said Israel would be represented at the gathering by Dan Meridor, who is a deputy prime minister responsible for atomic energy.

The summit will not focus on individual nations, but the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea -- and possible new U.N. sanctions against Tehran -- are expected to come up.

Both countries are excluded from the meeting.

Israel considers Iran’s suspected drive to build nuclear warheads a threat to its existence, but it hopes that diplomatic persuasion and sanctions will be sufficient to make the Islamic Republic drop its nuclear weapons aspirations, without resorting to the use of military force.

Reporting by Joseph Nasr and Douglas Hamilton; editing by Diana Abdallah

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