VIENNA: Member states of the UN nuclear watchdog narrowly rejected an Arab-sponsored resolution on Friday calling on Israel to join a global anti-atomic weapons treaty, a diplomatic victory for the United States.
Washington had urged countries to vote down the symbolically important although non-binding resolution, saying it could derail broader efforts to ban nuclear warheads in the Middle East and also damage fresh Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"The winner here is the peace process, the winner here is the opportunity to move forward with a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East," Glyn Davies, the US envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said after a tense debate that highlighted deep divisions between largely Western countries and developing nations.
Israel is widely believed to hold the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal and is also the only country in the tinderbox region outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Arab states backed by Iran say this poses a threat to peace and stability. They want Israel to subject all its atomic facilities to IAEA monitoring. Israel says it would only join the pact if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Israel has never confirmed nor denied having atomic bombs, under a policy of ambiguity to deter its Arab and Islamic foes.
Forty-six delegations voted in favor of the resolution and 51 against. Other delegations in the general assembly of the 151-member IAEA either abstained or were absent.
It had approved a similar resolution expressing concern at "Israel's Nuclear Capabilities" in a close vote at last year's General Conference, as the annual IAEA gathering is known.
"The vote result is an important victory for the moral stand in the face of extremism and hypocrisy," Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel's Army Radio.
Israel itself warned against what it said were attempts by Islamic nations to deflect attention from Iran and Syria, the two nations under IAEA investigation. Both Iran and Syria deny allegations that they are or were interested in secretly developing nuclear weapons but both are rebuffing IAEA attempts to follow up on intelligence suggesting such activities.
"It is Iran and Syria that represent the greatest threat to peace and security to the Middle East and beyond," Israeli delegate Ehud Azoulay told the meeting, accusing the two countries of hiding behind "the verbal barrage that is flooding this room."
Avoiding a 'fatal blow'?
Several small countries, including some in Latin America such as Costa Rica and Panama, who were absent in 2009 voted against the measure this time. Like last year, Russia and China supported the text, showing big power differences on the issue.
If it signed the NPT, Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry. Arab states say there can be no genuine peace in the Middle East until Israel abandons nuclear weapons.
"It is Israel that singles itself out by standing aloof from the consensus of all the other states in the region which have acceded to the NPT," a Sudanese diplomat told the assembly, speaking for the Arab group. "It stands alone in refusing to place its nuclear facilities under the agency safeguards."
Israel and the United States regard Iran as the Middle East's main proliferation threat, accusing it of seeking to develop atomic weapons in secret. Tehran denies the charge.
US officials had warned that approval of the resolution would erase any chance of Israel attending an Egyptian-proposed conference in 2012 toward establishing a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.
Israel's IAEA envoy, Ehud Azoulay, told the Vienna gathering earlier on Friday that the Arab-led effort to single out the Jewish state could deal a "fatal blow" to any cooperation on improving security in the Middle East.
Iranian chief delegate Ali Asghar Soltanieh claimed victory despite the motion's defeat, asserting that the vote and surrounding discussion kept pressure on Israel, which is commonly considered to be the only Mideast nation to posses nuclear weapons.
"This was a big failure of the United States' foreign policies," he said of the results, saying that the combined votes for the resolution and the abstentions showed more then 100 nations directly or indirectly backed the measure to criticize Israel.
Still, the result was disappointing to supporters of the resolution, who had hoped to build on the momentum of last year, when the IAEA assembly overrode Western objections to pass by a four-vote margin a similar resolution directly criticizing Israel and its atomic program for the first time in 18 years.
"I am very aware of the fact that in Arab capitals this is viewed very negatively," said Davies, the US delegate, of Friday's vote, acknowledging that "tempers are going to have to cool" before discussions on the envisaged 2012 conference on a Mideast free of nuclear arms can be advanced.