UPDATE 3-Netanyahu cancels trip to Obama’s nuclear summit
Fri Apr 9, 2010 1:01am GMT
* Netanyahu fears Islamic ambush at conference
* Sends a deputy in his place to Washington (Updates with White House, Liz Cheney comments)
By Douglas Hamilton
JERUSALEM, April 9 (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has canceled a planned trip to Washington next week for President Barack Obama’s 47-country nuclear security summit conference.
He made the decision after learning Egypt and Turkey intended to raise the issue of Israel’s presumed nuclear arsenal at the conference, a senior government official said on Friday.
Israel is believed to be the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East but has never confirmed or denied that it possesses atomic weapons. It has not signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, or NPT.
Netanyahu saw Obama at the White House late last month for talks on the stalled Middle East peace process with the Palestinians, but they failed to see eye to eye and relations between the two leaders remain at a low ebb.
“The prime minister has decided to cancel his trip to Washington to attend the nuclear conference next week, after learning that some countries including Egypt and Turkey plan to say Israel must sign the NPT,” the official said.
Israeli media said Netanyahu feared that Islamic countries attending the summit would try to shift its focus from nuclear terrorism to a concerted attack on his country’s presumed nuclear weapons capacity.
The White House said it had been informed Netanyahu would not attend the summit and that Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor would lead the Israeli delegation.
“We welcome Deputy Prime Minister Meridor’s participation in the conference. Israel is a close ally and we look forward to continuing to work closely on issues related to nuclear security,” Mike Hammer, White House National Security Council spokesman, said.
In New Orleans, hundreds of party loyalists at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference applauded when they were informed Netanyahu had just canceled his visit to Washington.
At the gathering, Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, blasted Obama for his “shabby” treatment of Netanyahu at the White House recently, saying it was “disgraceful.”
She added: “Israel is our strongest ally in the Middle East and one of our strongest allies anywhere around this globe. And President Obama is playing a reckless game of continuing down the path of diminishing America’s ties to Israel.”
UP TO 200 WARHEADS?
Foreign analysts believe Israel has been a secret nuclear power for the past 40 years and may possess a sizable arsenal.
Based on estimates of the plutonium production capacity of its Dimona reactor in the southern Negev desert, experts say it could have 100 to 200 advanced nuclear explosive devices.
Dozens of world leaders are due in Washington next week for the unprecedented conference, with Obama hoping they can agree on how to keep atomic bombs out of the hands of terrorists.
The summit will not focus on individual nations, but the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea — and possible new U.N. sanctions against Tehran — are expected to come up.
Both countries are excluded from the meeting.
Israel considers Iran’s suspected drive to build nuclear warheads a threat to its existence, but it hopes that diplomatic persuasion and sanctions will be sufficient to make the Islamic Republic drop its nuclear weapons aspirations, without resorting to the use of military force. (Reporting by Joseph Nasr and Douglas Hamilton, Steve Holland in New Orleans; Editing by Diana Abdallah and Peter Cooney)