VIENNA: A 151-nation meeting of the UN atomic watchdog narrowly defeated an Arab push Friday to censure Israel for shielding its nuclear programs from inspection in a closely watched result that the US said was a positive signal for ongoing Mideast peace talks.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, on the last day of its annual general conference, voted against the resolution urging Israel to accede to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
The paper — which Washington had asked Arab countries not to table at all for fear it could jeopardize a conference on a nuclear weapons-free Middle East scheduled to be held in 2012 — was thrown out by the 151-member general assembly, with 51 votes against, 46 votes for and 23 abstentions.
In the run-up to this week’s conference, Washington had even flown in President Barack Obama’s top nuclear advisor, Gary Samore, to try and persuade Arab nations to drop their plans, warning that it could also sour newly restarted peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Prior to the vote, Israeli ambassador Ehud Azoulay had warned: "Adopting this resolution will be a fatal blow to any hope for future cooperative efforts towards better regional security in the Middle East."
The non-binding resolution is purely symbolic, but had had been adopted by a very narrow majority in 2009.
And this year’s vote was preceded by some harsh exchanges between Israel and the resolution’s Arab sponsors.
Nevertheless, in an initial reaction, US envoy Glyn Davies insisted that there were "no winners nor losers" in the vote.
"What’s important about it is, is that it preserves the chance for movement eventually toward a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction once peace there is achieved," he said.
The vote "sends the right, positive signal to the peace process and really allows that process to go ahead," Davies said.
The US ambassador insisted the outcome of the vote did not engender any "feelings of elation or that we’ve won some great victory.
"What’s important is that we’ve stopped some action from occurring that would have made it very difficult to move forward with both the peace process and toward a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction when that peace is achieved," he said.
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, 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.
Israel is the only Middle East power believed to possess nuclear weapons, but it has never officially confirmed or denied this, opting instead for a policy of ambiguity.
During the general debate earlier this week, Israel’s nuclear chief Shaul Chorev reiterated the Jewish state’s stance that acceding to the NPT would run against its national interests.
The NPT, which came into force in 1970, has been signed by 189 states. Only three countries — India, Pakistan and Israel — have not signed it.
Israeli ambassador Azoulay denounced the resolution as being "political by its nature."
It "contradicts the basic aims and goals of the IAEA," he said.
It was Iran and Syria and not Israel that represented the "greatest threat to peace and security in the Middle East and beyond," Azoulay said.
In tabling the resolution, the Arabs states were trying to "hijack" the conference for their own purposes and "score cheap political points," he said.