Israel's prime minister abruptly called off a trip to Washington just days before he was slated to attend a conference there on the spread of nuclear weapons, officials in his office said Friday, fearing Israel would be singled out over its own nuclear program.
Benjamin Netanyahu had said he would attend the conference to underline the dangers of terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons, but suddenly called off the trip less than two days after he announced he would take part.
Officials in his office said Netanyahu reversed himself because some nations planned to use the conference to target Israel over its barely concealed nuclear weapons program. They spoke on condition of anonymity because no official announcement has been made.
In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer confirmed that Israel had informed the U.S. that Netanyahu would be staying home, sending his deputy, Dan Meridor, instead.
A visit by Netanyahu to Washington could also have served to bring additional attention to Israel's currently rocky ties with the Obama administration. The Israeli leader's trip to the U.S. capital last month failed to iron out differences between the allies on Israeli construction in east Jerusalem, a spat disrupting U.S. efforts to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
The Israeli officials did not name the states thought to be planning to single out Israel, which has not signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. Muslim nations — including Egypt, which has a peace treaty with Israel — have often complained about Israel's nuclear program.
Israel has not admitted to possessing nuclear weapons, preferring a policy it calls "ambiguity." Based on evidence, international experts have estimated that Israel has dozens, possibly hundreds, of nuclear bombs.
Hazhir Teimourian, an Iranian-born Mideast analyst based in London, said Muslims in the Middle East share the belief that Israel has nuclear weapons and therefore "has no right to talk about any of the others."
"On the other hand, sane people do not believe that Israel would use nuclear weapons unless its very existence was in danger," Teimourian said.
The most detailed evidence emerged in 1986, when a former technician at Israel's main nuclear facility leaked pictures and information to the London Sunday Times. The technician, Mordechai Vanunu, was captured and served an 18-year prison sentence in Israel.
On Wednesday, before the decision was reversed, Netanyahu was asked by The Associated Press at a Jerusalem news conference if he did not think his presence would draw pressure over Israel's own nuclear program.
"I'm not concerned that anyone would think that Israel is a terrorist regime," Netanyahu said. "Everybody knows a terrorist and rogue regime when they see one, and believe me, they see quite a few around Israel."
For years, Netanyahu has been leading a campaign to publicize Iran's nuclear program, charging — along with the U.S. and other Western countries — that it is meant to produce nuclear weapons. Israel has called for stiff sanctions against Iran, but at the same time has not taken the option of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities off the table.
Israel considers Iran a strategic threat because of its nuclear program, ballistic missiles and repeated references by its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Israel's destruction. Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful.
Netanyahu had hoped to press his case against Iran at the Washington conference.
Beginning on Monday, government leaders from more than 40 countries will gather to discuss improving safeguards against terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons.
Ahead of the conference, the White House announced a major shift in U.S. nuclear policy — a new focus on the threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists and rogue regimes rather than on the long-running arms race with Russia.
Associated Press Writers Steve R. Hurst in Washington and Amy Teibel in Jerusalem contributed this report.
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