Last updated: 11 April, 2012

Israel and Finland in talks over nuclear-free Mideast

Israel is holding talks with Finland about attending a conference on a creating a nuclear-free Middle East, a foreign ministry spokesman said on Wednesday.

The conference is expected to take place in Helsinki in December under the shadow of a growing international standoff over Iran’s disputed nuclear programme, which much of the West believes is a cover for a weapons drive.

“The Finnish representative was in Israel recently but it was not a secret; it was a normal meeting,” Yigal Palmor told AFP of last week’s talks with Finland’s undersecretary of state for foreign affairs, Jaakko Laajava, details of which were first published by Haaretz newspaper.

“No decisions (on attending the conference) have been taken so far on the Israeli side but the talks are ongoing,” he told AFP, without saying what was discussed.

The idea of moving toward a nuclear weapons-free Middle East won formal backing in 2010 at a meeting on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and diplomats believe the presence of arch-foes Israel and Iran will be crucial to the success of any conference.

Israel is not a signatory to the NPT and has so far refused to commit to attending the event; Iran, which is a member of the NPT, has also refused to state a position on the proposed conference.

Laajava has been tasked with convincing both countries to attend.

Last month, Israel’s UN Ambassador Ron Prosor said there could be no agreement on a weapons-free zone until there was a “comprehensive peace” in the region.

The NPT, which came into force in 1970, has been signed by 189 states. Only three countries — India, Pakistan and Israel — have not signed it.

Israel, which is widely believed to be the region’s sole if undeclared nuclear power, believes there is a need for a more credible system for preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technology than the NPT.

“This system has failed so many times — in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria and in Iran. We must make a more credible system but we must wait for the Arab regimes to stabilise,” a senior Israeli official told AFP.

“When we’re talking about proliferation, you cannot have a credible system until there is stability in the region,” he said, referring to the wave of political turmoil which has engulfed much of the Arab world over the past 14 months.