October 14, 2011 / 10:03 PM / in 6 years

Finland to host meeting on Mideast WMD-free zone

* U.S. worries 2012 meeting may be used to bash Israel

* Unclear whether Israel will participate in meeting

By Louis Charbonneau

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 14 (Reuters) - Finland has agreed to host a potentially divisive international conference next year on ridding the Middle East of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, the United Nations said on Friday.

Undersecretary of State Jaakko Laajava at the Finnish Foreign Ministry will be the conference’s facilitator, the world body said in a joint statement with the United States, Britain and Russia.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague welcomed Finland’s agreement to host the meeting, saying in a statement that “a Middle East free of all WMD (weapons of mass destruction) and their means of delivery is an achievable goal, and one which is vital to the long term peace and security of the region.”

But he added it “will not happen overnight nor without the commitment and support of all states in the region.”

The plan for a meeting to lay the groundwork for the possible creation of a WMD-free Middle East was agreed to at a May 2010 conference of 189 parties to the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which met to take stock of the troubled pact.

The United States fears such a meeting could be used as a forum to bash Israel and demand it abandon any nuclear arms it has.

U.S. and Israeli officials have said a nuclear arms-free zone in the Middle East could not be a reality until there was broad Arab-Israeli peace and Iran curbed its nuclear program.

Like nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, Israel has never signed the NPT. It neither confirms nor denies having nuclear arms, although non-proliferation and security analysts believe Israel has several hundred atomic weapons.

The level of U.S. enthusiasm for a WMD-free zone conference is unclear, Western diplomats say. Washington’s commitment will be key to the success or failure of the conference, they say, as it is the only country that can persuade Israel to attend.

It also remains unclear whether Israel will take part in the 2012 conference in Finland, a senior Western diplomat told reporters this week in New York.

The idea for such a conference came from Egypt, which pushed for a conference with all states in the Middle East -- including arch-enemies Israel and Iran -- to negotiate a treaty that would establish a nuclear arms-free zone.

In a reversal from the previous U.S. administration, President Barack Obama agreed last year to join with the NPT’s four other nuclear powers -- Britain, France, Russia and China -- in backing the demand of Egypt and other Arab states to organize an anti-WMD conference and to encourage Israel to participate. (Editing by Peter Cooney)

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