VIENNA, Sept 24 (Reuters) - Member states of the U.N. nuclear watchdog narrowly rejected an Arab-sponsored resolution on Friday calling on Israel
to join a global anti-atomic weapons treaty, a diplomatic victory for the United States.
Washington had urged countries to vote down the symbolically important although non-binding resolution, saying it could derail broader efforts to ban nuclear warheads in the Middle East and also damage fresh Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The winner here is the peace process
, the winner here is the opportunity to move forward with a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, Glyn Davies, the U.S. envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said after a tense debate that highlighted deep divisions between largely Western countries and developing nations.
Israel is widely believed to hold the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal and is also the only country in the tinderbox region outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Arab states backed by Iran say this poses a threat to peace and stability. They want Israel to subject all its atomic facilities to IAEA monitoring. Israel says it would only join the pact if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace.
Israel has never confirmed nor denied having atomic bombs, under a policy of ambiguity to deter its Arab and Islamic foes.
Forty-six delegations voted in favour of the resolution and 51 against. Other delegations in the general assembly of the 151-member IAEA either abstained or were absent.
It had approved a similar resolution expressing concern at Israel's Nuclear Capabilities in a close vote at last year's General Conference, as the annual IAEA gathering is known.
The vote result is an important victory for the moral stand in the face of extremism and hypocrisy, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel's Army Radio.
AVOIDING FATAL BLOW?
Several small countries, including some in Latin America such as Costa Rica and Panama, who were absent in 2009 voted against the measure this time. Like last year, Russia and China supported the text, showing big power differences on the issue.
If it signed the NPT, Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry. Arab states say there cannot be genuine peace in the Middle East until Israel abandons nuclear weapons.
It is Israel that singles itself out by standing aloof from the consensus of all the other states in the region which have acceded to the NPT, a Sudanese diplomat told the assembly, speaking for the Arab group. It stands alone in refusing to place its nuclear facilities under the agency safeguards.
Israel and the United States regard Iran as the Middle East's main proliferation threat, accusing it of seeking to develop atomic weapons in secret. Tehran denies the charge.
U.S. officials had warned that approval of the resolution would erase any chance of Israel attending an Egyptian-proposed conference in 2012 towards establishing a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction.
Israel's IAEA envoy, Ehud Azoulay, told the Vienna gathering earlier on Friday that the Arab-led effort to single out the Jewish state could deal a fatal blow to any cooperation on improving security in the Middle East.
We have preserved that opportunity...for what we all would like to see which is not just the Middle East as a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, but the entire world, Davies said.