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Israel sees no discord with U.S. on nuclear issue

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel voiced confidence on Tuesday that U.S. President Barack Obama would not challenge its long-standing policy of neither confirming nor denying it has nuclear weapons.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak speaks at the American Jewish Committee Annual Gala dinner in Washington April 29, 2010. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Asked whether Israel was losing U.S. support for its policy of “nuclear ambiguity,” Defence Minister Ehud Barak told Israeli Army Radio: “I don’t believe so. I spoke at length with President Obama about such issues just 10 days ago.”

Barak met Obama and other U.S. officials in Washington against the backdrop of a U.N. review conference in New York of the parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Israel has not signed.

In Washington, a senior adviser to Obama on nuclear matters said U.S. officials had not been talking to the Israelis about changing their policy of nuclear ambiguity, adding he did not support such a change.

“Do I personally support it (a change)? No,” said Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction.

“For a long time the U.S. has said that ... we would like to see Israel eventually join the NPT, we would like to see establishment of a zone in the Middle East free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction,” Samore said at a luncheon with journalists.

But to achieve this, regional peace was needed and the Obama administration was working hard to push the Middle East peace process forward, Samore said.

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Hoping to win Arab backing for sanctions against Iran, the United States and other permanent U.N. Security Council members last Wednesday called for ways to be found to implement a 1995 initiative that would guarantee nuclear disarmament in a region where Israel is widely assumed to have the only such weapons.

The declaration followed campaigning by Egypt to focus attention, during the non-proliferation conference this month, on Israel, which has set peace with all its neighbours as a precondition for joining the nuclear pact.

Samore said while a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction would not be achieved soon, the Obama administration was working with the Israelis and other parties to identify “some steps that could be taken, that would at least allow for some discussion of the issue.”

Barak said Iran and North Korea -- not Israel -- were the main focus of international non-proliferation efforts.

“There’s nothing to be alarmed about. There is no real threat to the traditional position and understandings between Israel and the United States,” Barak said.

For the past 40 years, the United States has maintained a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy towards an assumed Israeli arsenal that is believed to include some 200 atomic warheads -- a grievance and perceived threat among many Arabs and Muslims.

This tension surfaced at the U.N. nuclear assembly last September when Arab states won narrow backing for a resolution urging Israel to put all its atomic sites under U.N. inspection and join the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Arab nations have pushed for the topic of “Israeli nuclear capabilities” to be discussed at the next meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors in June, according to a provisional agenda seen by Reuters.

Following the September resolution, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano has also opened a discussion with member states on the theme and is expected to report his findings.

Israel’s strategy of ambiguity has been billed as a way to ward off enemies while avoiding public provocations that could trigger arms races.

Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell in Washington; Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams; Editing by Matthew Jones and John O’Callaghan