Syria accused Israel on Wednesday of posing a threat to the world with its “huge military nuclear arsenal”, a day after the Jewish state criticized Damascus for stonewalling a U.N. watchdog investigation into its atomic activities.
The exchange between the two adversaries, at an annual member state meeting of the U.N. nuclear agency, underlined deep divisions between Arab states and Israel ahead of rare talks later this year on efforts to rid the world of atomic bombs.
Israel is widely believed to hold the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, drawing frequent Arab and Iranian condemnation.
Israel and the United States see Iran -- and to a lesser extent Syria -- as the Middle East’s main proliferation threats, accusing Tehran of seeking to develop a nuclear arms capability in secret.
Arab nations have dropped plans to single out Israel over its presumed nuclear weapons at this week’s gathering of International Atomic Energy Agency members, calling this a goodwill gesture in the run-up to the Nov. 21-22 discussions.
“The Arab countries have decided to postpone the submission of a draft resolution ... to the next session,” Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a speech.
The resolution would have urged Israel to join other countries in the Middle East including Syria and Iran in becoming party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
A similar one was adopted by a narrow majority at the IAEA’s annual meeting in 2009 and was only narrowly defeated in 2010 after intense lobbying by Israel and close ally the United States.
But the Syrian and Israeli statements this week highlighted a high level of mistrust ahead of the meeting, hosted by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, to debate the experience of regions elsewhere in the world that have banned nuclear arms.
Relations between the two are especially fraught in the nuclear arena. Israel bombed a Syrian desert site in 2007 which U.S. intelligence said was a nascent reactor intended to produce plutonium for nuclear weaponry. Syria denies this.
“In the Middle East there is a unique feature: Israel is the only country which has a military and nuclear arsenal, outside the realm of any international control,” Sabbagh told the IAEA’s annual General Conference.
For the November talks to be successful, “all participants should be parties to the NPT and the agenda of such a meeting should focus on the issue of creating a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East”.
Arab states, Israel and other countries are expected to attend the talks, which are regarded as a way to kick-start a dialogue and help generate some badly needed confidence.
Addressing the IAEA conference on Tuesday, the head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission lashed out at Syria for still refusing U.N. nuclear inspectors access to all its atomic sites.
Naming also Iran, Shaul Chorev said: “Regimes that brutally repress their own citizens ... have no hesitation when it comes to non-compliance with their legally binding obligations under international law.
“The international community has failed to convey a decisive message to such rulers. (They) still consider non-compliance as a low risk. The international community should prove them wrong. Violators should be punished,” said Chorev.
Israel has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons under a policy of ambiguity to deter numerically superior foes. It is the only country in the Middle East outside the NPT.
Arab states, backed by Iran, say Israel’s stance poses a threat to regional peace and stability. They want Israel to subject all its nuclear facilities to IAEA monitoring.
Israel says it would only join the pact if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace with its longtime Arab and Iranian adversaries. If it signed the 1970 NPT pact, Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry.
In a U.S.-led move, the IAEA’s 35-nation board voted in June to report Syria to the U.N. Security Council over its refusal to allow agency inspectors to visit the Dair Alzour site. Russia and China opposed the move, betraying big power splits.
Syria has since offered to cooperate on the issue of Dair Alzour and Sabbagh said a meeting with the U.N. agency had been set for October. Western diplomats have expressed caution about previous such overtures from Damascus.
Sabbagh said Israel’s attack on Dair Alzour had violated international law. “As a consequence of this heinous aggression the military building, which did not have any relation with nuclear activities, was destroyed,” he said.
The IAEA assessed in a recent nuclear safeguards report on Syria that the site was “very likely” to have been a nuclear reactor under construction, before it was leveled.