The ability of Muslim countries to turn this week’s Nuclear Security Summit in Washington into a meeting focusing on Israel will be greatly reduced now that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will not be attending the meeting, government officials said Saturday night.
With Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, who is in charge of intelligence and atomic affairs, going in Netanyahu’s place, Israel will keep a lower profile at the meeting and it will “not be the same” for countries who want to lambast Israel there, the officials added.
Netanyahu announced late Thursday night that he had reversed his initial intention, and decided – based on information that certain participants at the conference, primarily Egypt and Turkey, were going to exploit the meeting to bash Israel for not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – not to participate in the summit, which is to be attended by leaders from more than 40 countries.
The information regarding the content of the summit apparently came to the Prime Minister’s Office within a 24-hour period between Wednesday and Thursday, because at a Wednesday afternoon press conference Netanyahu still said he was going to the conference and did not articulate any concern that Israel might become the main issue.
Government sources rejected some speculation that Netanyahu’s decision not to attend had more to do with the current tension in Israeli-US relations, with one official saying, that in any event, no meetings were planned between Netanyahu and top administration officials during his originally scheduled trip to the summit.
The government has not responded – nor is it at all clear that it will respond in a formal manner – to demands US President Barack Obama reportedly made of Netanyahu regarding the diplomatic process when they met in Washington three weeks ago.
According to government officials, Netanyahu wanted to attend the nuclear conference and “very much supports the importance of safeguarding nuclear materials and technology.”
But, the officials continued, when it became clear that the meeting would be exploited to attack Israel, it was decided to lower the country’s profile at the event.
In Washington, meanwhile, US officials stressed that the summit would not deal with the NPT. The officials also expressed understanding for Netanyahu’s last-minute cancellation, and noted the country will still be represented by a sizable delegation headed by Meridor.
“I think that the Israelis did not want to be a catalyst for changing the theme of the summit,” US National Security Adviser James Jones told reporters while traveling with Obama Friday. The summit is meant to impose international safeguards on nuclear material and other ensure that such capabilities don’t fall into the hands of terrorists.
“We obviously would like to have had the prime minister, but the deputy prime minister will be leading the delegation and there will be a robust Israeli delegation,” Jones said.
But Jerusalem’s nuclear program – despite the lower-profile Israeli delegation and American desire to keep it off the agenda – still has the potential to become a major issue at the conference. In addition to not signing the NPT, Israel is widely believed to have an undeclared nuclear arsenal.
At a briefing previewing the conference Friday with US National Security Council officials, a member of the Egyptian press raised the issue, asking whether pressing Israel to sign the NPT wouldn’t help the efforts to reign in nuclear Iran.
“This summit is focused on securing vulnerable nuclear materials. It is not focused on the NPT,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, responded.
“Everybody would benefit from strong national and international actions to secure vulnerable nuclear materials,” Rhodes continued, underscoring the conference’s stated mission. “This is an area where we do believe that there is the ability to build broad consensus both in the Middle East, in the region and around the world as to the kinds of actions that need to be taken on behalf of nuclear security.”
He noted that the issue of Iran was likely to come up in many of the bilateral meetings Obama and other top US leaders will hold with their counterparts on the sidelines of the two-day conference.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley later defended the invitation extended to Israel when asked about the fact that Jerusalem hadn’t signed the NPT.
Crowley referred to a “a demonstrated track record in terms of cooperating on these issues” as well as “demonstrated responsibility with respect to nonproliferation issues.”
He also explained, “Israel is not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so it has not violated specific obligations. That said, it has a civilian nuclear program and it has a demonstrated track record of protecting the technology in its possession.”
Netanyahu’s late change of plans coincides with the deepest chill between the US and Israel in years. He visited the White House just last month while in town to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and held a two-hour meeting with Obama to resolve differences between the two governments, particularly over Israeli building in east Jerusalem and the nature of stalled proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Despite the tensions and cancellation by Netanyahu, Jones – when asked Friday whether the US-Israel relationship was in crisis – spoke of his ongoing contacts with his Israeli counterparts, including a meeting scheduled for next week in Washington with National Security Council head Uzi Arad.
“I know that the relationships are ongoing and fine and continuous,” he said. “We’re talking about the importance of starting the proximity talks and I think everybody is pulling on the same oar in that direction.”
He also said there was “no decision” on whether the US would be submitting its own peace plan, though he confirmed recent press reports on his conferring with former national security advisors who discussed the issue with him.
But, he said: “We are focused on the proximity talks, eventual
resumption of peace talks and getting to the two-state solution in a
manner that’s befitting and deserving for the people of the region, and
the overall security of the region and the impact on the global playing
“This is obviously a very strategic moment with Iran and our efforts
there. The two are very closely linked because of the region that both
efforts are ongoing in, and we have to treat that with the seriousness
that it deserves,” he added.