Since the month-long review conference on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) opened in New York on 2 May, speaker after speaker have called on the world community to help establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East by urging Israel to give up its nuclear weapons programme.

Though equally concerned about Iran's and North Korea's nuclear ambitions, diplomats from the developing world, especially those from the Middle East, are leaving no stone unturned in raising questions about Israeli nuclear weapons in the open debate.

"The presence of nuclear arms is an impediment to peace not only in the region, but in the world," Qatari diplomat Nasr al-Ali told delegates recently.

Saudi representative Naif Bin Bandar al-Sudairy added in a statement: "These weapons are a major obstacle to peace and security in the region."

The legitimacy of the demand for establishment of nuclear-weapons free zone in the Middle East emanates from a number of UN General Assembly resolutions and recommendations made with consensus at the NPT review conferences held in the past.

Israeli arsenal

Armed with 200 to 300 estimated nuclear bombs in its arsenals, Israel argues that it is willing to join the treaty, but only after a comprehensive peace agreement has been reached with its Arab neighbours, many of whom it eyes as "hostile nations".

The US has turned a blind eye to
Israel's atomic stockpile

"A Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone will be viewed very favourably by Israel once we have a comprehensive peace in the area," Israeli ambassador Daniel Ayalon said recently.

Israeli officials say their nuclear arms do not pose a threat to other countries and that they are merely a deterrent against invasion from its larger neighbours.

"The real risk of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East emanates from countries that, despite being parties to the international treaties, do not comply with their relevant international obligations," Alan Bar, director of Israeli foreign ministry's arms control department, says.

"These countries," he says, "are engaged in ongoing efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles that have destabilising effect on not only the region, but on global scale as well".

Bar says Israel has "never threatened its neighbours nor abrogated its obligations under any disarmament treaty".

Arab diplomats dismiss such assertions vociferously.

Arab stand

"Peace is not based on possession of weapons of mass destruction," said al-Sudairy. "Real peace must be founded on confidence, trust and good intentions. It is based on freeing the region from injustice, occupation and aggression."

Israel's friends in Washington who are involved in policy-making, research and advice on nuclear issue blame Iran as the single most potential source of nuclear destabilisation in the Middle East than any other nation in the region.

Iran is in the US firing line for its
suspected nuclear ambitions

"The question now is whether the whole NPT regime is threatened by Iran and not whether a nuclear-free zone is immediately feasible," Aerial Cohen, a senior analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy thinktank based in Washington, told Aljazeera.net.

"It may be feasible at some point, but right now you see a threat to the NPT regime coming in the aftermath of both India and Pakistan and North Korea delivering blows to non-proliferation."

Both India and Pakistan, who tested their nuclear weapons in 1998, have refused to sign the treaty while in defiance to the US pressure to abandon its nuclear programme, North Korea opted out of the treaty about two years ago.

Iranian ambitions

"If Iran violates NPT," Cohen says, "there will be a 'domino affect' that may involve Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, at which point Israel may go hot. Meaning Israel may not just hide behind creative ambiguity it did so far, but will put its nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, and that will be Iran's contribution to more unstable Middle East".

Cohen's fear about nuclear instability in the Middle East is something that many US-based independent-minded researchers and analysts also share, but from a radically different perspective.

"The world does well to remember that most Middle East weapons programmes began as a response to Israel's nuclear weapons," says Joseph Cirincione, who co-authored a recent study, Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a liberal policy thinktank based in Washington.

"Everyone already knows about Israel's bombs in the closet," he says. "Bringing them out into the open and putting them on the table as part of a regional deal may be the only way to prevent others from building their own bombs in their basements."

Urgency underlined

Though Cirincione admits that it will not be easy to create such an agreement, he makes a point that there is no time to lose.

Looking at the current diplomatic currents in the Middle East as being favourable for the Bush administration, Cirincione believes "this is precisely the time" to intensify efforts to create a zone free of nuclear weapons.

"It should be obvious that Israelis are better off in a region where no one has nuclear weapons than in one where many nations have them," he argues.

Interviews with the US diplomatic sources barely suggest any serious move in this direction.

There is growing anger worldwide
against US double standards

"Our position has been the same," said an official from the US mission to the UN on the condition of anonymity. "We have urged Israel to join the treaty. We have a long-standing concern over its safeguard facilities."

The US response suggests that while the US does recognise the need for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East, it has no intention as yet to convince Israel to sign the NPT.

In the 1990s, the US, Israel and the Arab nations had all supported the goal of non-proliferation, but they failed to make any progress after the Palestinian-Israeli peace process collapsed.

The US attempt to bring Iran into the focus of international debates on proliferation while turning a blind eye to Israel's illegal possession of nuclear weapons compelled numerous delegates to dub the US nuclear policy as based on nothing but double standards and hypocrisy.

Arab diplomacy

"Some states which are waging war against nuclear weapons are defending Israel and thwarting initiatives to establish a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East," Syrian ambassador Fayssal Mekdad told Aljazeera.net, in an obvious reference to the US, which accuses Syria of supporting terrorist groups.

"Some states which are waging war against nuclear weapons are defending Israel and thwarting initiatives to establish nuclear free zone in the Middle East"

Abyssal Melded,
Syrian ambassador

Though disappointed with the US role, Arab diplomats are actively participating in the review conference negotiations, with Egypt being in a leadership role.

Representing the 115-member Non-Aligned Movement, the Egyptian delegation is urging the conference to set up a subsidiary body to implement its past resolutions on nuclear weapons
free zones.

"This conference should establish a practical roadmap that guarantees the establishment of nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East," Egyptian envoy Ahmed Fathallah told delegates last week.

No miracles

The agenda includes negotiations over the question of nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East, a move the US had tried to block but failed.

While they expect no miracles towards the end of the conference, which will go on for another week, diplomats from the Arab world see the continued discussion on the issue of nuclear free zone as a significant step forward.

"Israel has to be brought in," Mekdad said shortly after the president of the conference declared that the agenda had been finalised. "We are not going to give up. We'll be there talking about it."