Benjamin Netanyahu's decision not to take part in next week's nuclear security summit in the U.S. will be seen as a victory for mounting Arab and Muslim pressure on Israel over its most controversial and secret weapon.

Egypt has long campaigned on the issue of Israel's atomic arsenal. Last month, the Arab League called on the U.N. to declare West Asia a nuclear-free zone. Saudi Arabia has been active too. Turkey also backs this demand as it offers to mediate between the West and Iran over Tehran's nuclear programme.

Israel, constantly highlighting the danger from Iran, is estimated to have 150 to 200 atomic bombs, deliverable by aircraft, missile or submarine. Its programme was developed after France built a nuclear reactor at Dimona in the Negev desert in the 1950s. The so-called Samson option was seen by Israel's first generation of leaders as designed to prevent another Holocaust — its bombs reportedly bearing the slogan “never again”.

Israel, unlike Iran or Saddam Hussein's Iraq, never signed the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows countries to develop civilian nuclear power in exchange for forgoing weapons — supposedly the preserve of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

India, Pakistan and North Korea have swelled the ranks of the weapons states, but unlike them, Israel has never come out of the closet, preferring a policy of so-called nuclear ambiguity — keeping its enemies guessing. Israel's official line has always been that it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons in West Asia.

Fears about Iran

Fears about Iran's nuclear ambitions have reinforced domestic support and perhaps international tolerance for Israel retaining its arsenal. In diplomatic terms, this has long been a no-go area for the U.S., Britain and other western countries. But the focus on Iran has also boosted Arab demands for a regional approach to disarmament.

Last September, for the first time in 18 years, Israel, the U.S. and other powers failed to prevent passage of a resolution by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) calling on Israel to sign the NPT and open up Dimona to international inspectors.

Egypt played a key role in negotiating the NPT in the 1960s and tried but failed to link the renewal of the treaty in 1995 to the creation of a nuclear-free zone. Syria, an ally of Iran, denies harbouring nuclear weapons ambitions, an issue that was dramatically highlighted in 2007 when Israeli warplanes destroyed an alleged reactor on the Euphrates.

“There is widespread resentment in the region towards the NPT and what it seeks to achieve, its double standards and lack of political will,” said Egypt's U.N. ambassador Hisham Badr recently. “We in the Middle East feel we have, short of better word, been tricked into giving concessions for promises that never materialised.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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