JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has tried to fend off Egyptian-led scrutiny of its arsenal at a U.N. nuclear conference by urging Cairo to view Iran’s atomic ambitions as the regional threat, an Israeli official said Tuesday.
The message was relayed by the delegation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh Sunday as the month-long, 189-nation Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review meeting began in New York.
While both sides said the Sharm talks had focused on peace efforts with the Palestinians, there was also a brief discussion of Egypt’s call on Western powers to support its longstanding demand that Israel join the NPT, a senior Israeli official said.
“Remember, Iran is the real problem,” the official quoted an Israeli delegate as telling the Egyptians.
NPT-signatory Iran denies Western suspicions that it is secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons capability. But its often opaque nuclear plans and vituperation toward Israel have stirred fears of war. Many Arabs are also wary of Persian power.
Asked to characterize the response from Mubarak’s delegation, the Israeli official said: “They know Iran is the problem, but they feel they can’t support a campaign against Iran without also putting pressure on Israel.”
By staying outside the NPT, Israel has not had to forswear nuclear arms nor admit U.N. inspectors to facilities where analysts believe it produced the region’s only atomic arsenal.
Mindful of hostile neighbors, Israel is secretive about its capabilities. But Arab countries and Iran are aggrieved by the idea of an Israeli nuclear monopoly enjoying tacit U.S. backing.
Such complaints are not lost on the Obama administration, which has reached out to the Muslim world and seeks consensus at the NPT conference as part of a wider nuclear disarmament drive.
Western diplomats said U.N. Security Council powers trying to step up sanctions against Iran could accommodate Egypt at the conference by encouraging Israel to join proposed talks on measures to rid the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.
Such talks should have a mandate to negotiate a regional treaty and be guided by principles of NPT compliance, says Egypt, which has publicly described curbing Israel’s assumed nuclear arms as a higher priority than Iran’s latent abilities.
Israel voiced interest in the regional initiative but says comprehensive peace accords would first have to be reached.
“Egypt has always pursued the NPT issue, but all the prime ministers have known how to tread along — in the face of Egypt’s opposition, which has always been fundamental — a parallel path of talks and dialogue,” Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, an Israeli cabinet minister and ex-defense chief who accompanied Netanyahu to Sharm el-Sheikh, said in a radio interview.
The United States and Russia, with the support of Britain, France and China, are leading efforts to work out a compromise proposal that would satisfy Egypt, diplomats in New York say.
Among ideas being floated are appointment of a coordinator to hold informal talks with Israel and its neighbors. Another idea would be for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to organize a conference on a WMD-free Middle East, the diplomats said.
Israel is very sensitive to any perceived challenge to its self-styled “nuclear ambiguity” policy — especially from its most important ally, the United States, or other Western powers.
The Obama administration has championed the vision of a WMD-free Middle East but echoed misgivings about how this might be negotiated when some states refuse to talk to Israel.
But Egypt suggested that merely broaching a deal for nuclear disarmament could bring about de facto engagement between foes.
“If major countries wish to address Iran’s nuclear dossier, they can do that by bringing Israel and Iran to the negotiating table,” Egypt’s U.N. Ambassador Maged Abdelaziz told Al-Ahram newspaper in an interview last week.
“That would allow the meeting to confront them and address their nuclear fears,” he said. “Iran may end up having to make some concessions in return for Israel doing the same, or for Israel agreeing to the creation of a nuclear-free zone and disposing of its ill-defined nuclear capabilities.”
Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alison Williams