Hilary Leila Krieger
The Jerusalem Post (Analysis)
April 13, 2010 - 12:00am

When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu pulled out of this week’s conference on nuclear security near midnight Thursday, Israeli officials put out word he wanted to avoid efforts by Muslim countries to use the forum to attack Israel’s undeclared nuclear arsenal.

Officials told The Jerusalem Post that by not attending, other countries’ ability to focus on Israel would be greatly reduced since it would “not be the same” without Netanyahu in the delegation.

Indeed, Israel has traditionally gone to great lengths to keep its nuclear program on the back burner, since it is widely believed to have a significant, though undeclared, nuclear arsenal, does not allow inspections of its nuclear site in Dimona and is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But the last-minute nature of the cancellation – and a stream of news stories quoting Israeli officials pointing to reported Turkish and Egyptian plans to highlight Israel’s nuclear program as its cause – had the effect of raising the profile of the Dimona program rather than lowering it.

Reporters looking ahead to the summit made Netanyahu’s cancellation a dominant story line. American officials from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on down have been pressed to comment on it.

It has come up at nearly every summit press briefing held in Washington since the move was announced, and even made its way to New York Monday morning when UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was asked about Israel’s nuclear program before leaving for the summit.

“All the member states who have not done so should participate in the NPT treaty,” he responded. “That is an obligation of all member states of the UN.”

The hubbub comes against a backdrop of speculation that the reason for Netanyahu’s late decision had more to do with the US-Israel relationship and the Middle East peace process than with the nuclear issue.

Just last month Netanyahu met with US President Barack Obama at the White House under a total media blackout in which not so much as an official photo was released. After the talks – which failed to resolve an impasse between the two countries begun when the Interior Ministry approved east Jerusalem construction during a visit by US Vice President Joe Biden in a move that infuriated the US – Netanyahu delayed his trip back to Israel to try to come up with gestures to the Palestinians that the US wants to see as a way to get stalled indirect negotiations off the ground.

Three weeks later, Israel still hasn’t given its response.

The White House made clear last week that Netanyahu would not be getting a one-on-one meeting with Obama during his visit, as part of a blanket rule that the president – hosting some 40 heads of state – wouldn’t meet with several leaders with whom he had recently conversed.

Should Netanyahu have run across Obama in the hallway of the convention center, he would have had little to give him.

It didn’t help that the move was surrounded by incongruous details.

For one thing, 24 hours earlier, Netanyahu had told reporters he would be going, come what may, and his office had even prepared a DC itinerary.

The first named American comment on the issue came from National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who initially attributed the decision to Netanyahu’s obligations on Holocaust Remembrance Day, which fell Monday.

Yet just like Holocaust Remembrance Day, whose date is known months ahead, it could have easily been anticipated that Muslim countries would use a nuclear forum to assail Israel. That has been standard practice at similar international conferences for many years.

As it happens, though, several have made it clear that it’s not on the agenda.

One Arab official pointed to Egypt – cited along with Turkey as a main instigator – to stress that the reports were “not true” since Cairo had no intention of raising the issue on Tuesday, the second and main day of the summit when leaders will offer official written statements as well as speak from the floor.

The US itself has made clear that Israel and the issue of NPT compliance is not a topic for discussion.

“This summit is focused on securing vulnerable nuclear materials. It is not focused on the NPT,” Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said when asked about Israel and the treaty.
While the cancellation helps Netanyahu avoid another round of strained talks with the Obama administration on the peace process, it doesn’t ensure Israel’s nuclear capabilities won’t be raised.

Dan Meridor, the minister for intelligence and atomic affairs, is still leading an Israeli delegation that Jones called “robust” and is set to participate in the summit’s many high-profile events.

Now, though, instead of it being a question of whether Meridor will be faced with the issue of Israel’s alleged arsenal during impromptu floor conversation Tuesday, the weekend headlines have already provided the answer.


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