VIENNA - Arab states said on Thursday they had decided as a "goodwill gesture" to refrain from targeting Israel with a resolution over its assumed nuclear arsenal at the UN atomic agency's annual assembly this week.
Arab envoys said the move was in support of wider efforts to rid the region of nuclear weapons, but it drew no public praise from Israel or the United States, which criticized the placing of the issue on the agenda in the first place.
Addressing a debate on "Israeli nuclear capabilities" called by the Arab countries, a senior US diplomat said Washington was firmly committed to the goal of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
However, "using meetings of the IAEA to single out Israel for censure will not take us one step closer to that goal. In fact, it is a step in the opposite direction," Robert Wood told the meeting of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.
"Repeatedly invoking this issue only serves to reduce trust and confidence among states in the region and to distract the agency's attention from serious issues of ongoing non-compliance by two other states in the region," Wood said.
That was a reference to Iran and Syria, which are under investigation by the IAEA over their disputed atomic activities.
Israeli ambassador Ehud Azoulay said: "It is Iran which represents the greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East and beyond ... Pointing an accusing finger toward Israel will not change this sombre reality."
Arab states had sharply criticized Israel but said they would not put forward a non-binding yet symbolically important resolution calling on Israel to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and place all its atomic sites under IAEA oversight.
They said this was decided so as not to undermine an Egyptian-proposed conference later this year to discuss the creation of a zone free of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
Western diplomats had said that a resolution aimed at Israel would dash any hopes of it taking part in those talks.
Clandestine nuclear activities
Russia welcomed what it described as a "constructive signal" by Arab states ahead of the meeting which may be held in Helsinki in December.
Even if it does go ahead - Israel and Iran have yet to say whether they will attend - Western diplomats expect little progress any time soon due to deep-rooted regional animosities.
Israel has drawn frequent Arab and Iranian condemnation over its presumed nuclear arsenal, and it is the only regional state not to belong to NPT, a 1970 pact set up to prevent the spread of atomic arms in the world.
Israel's "clandestine nuclear activities seriously threaten regional peace and security", Iranian ambassador Ali Asghar Soltanieh told the 155-nation IAEA assembly.
Israel and the United States regard Iran as the world's main proliferation threat and accuse Tehran of covertly seeking a nuclear arms capability, something the Islamic state denies.
Arab states scored a diplomatic victory in 2009 when IAEA members narrowly endorsed their resolution on Israel. It was defeated in 2010 after a bruising diplomatic battle and was not submitted last year.
Israel has said it would sign the NPT and renounce nuclear weapons only as part of a broader Middle East peace deal with Arab states and Iran that guaranteed its security.
The Jewish state, which has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons under a policy of ambiguity aimed at deterrence, has made clear it believes the volatile region is not yet ready for the creation of a zone free of atomic arms.
As in previous years, the IAEA conference adopted with a wide majority an Egyptian-proposed resolution calling on all Middle East states to join the NPT, but without mentioning Israel by name. Israel and the United States were among eight countries that abstained, while 111 states backed it.