* Rare U.S. echoing of Israel’s nuclear justifications
* Relief in Israel after Washington stance in NPT review
* Minister: Obama comments important for Israel and region
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, July 7 (Reuters) - Outspoken recognition by President Barack Obama of Israel’s “unique security requirements” is a clear signal Washington backs Israel’s secretive nuclear strategy while working toward ridding the Middle East of atomic arms, a top Israeli official said.
The Obama administration alarmed Israel in May by backing an Egyptian initiative for talks in 2012 on a Middle East free of weapons of mass-destruction. Widely assumed to have the only nuclear arsenal in the region, Israel had previously been spared such scrutiny by its guardian ally.
Yet hosting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday, Obama told reporters there was no change in U.S. policy and echoed Israel’s veiled justifications for having the bomb -- to the point of briefly mixing up the two countries:
”We strongly believe that, given its size, its history, the region that it’s in, and the threats that are levelled against us -- against it, that Israel has unique security requirements,“ the president said.”
The comments, following a rocky period in U.S.-Israel relations, were greeted with relief in the Jewish state.
Dan Meridor, Netanyahu’s deputy prime minister in charge of nuclear affairs, said Obama’s endorsement was not new but that its public expression -- two months after Washington supported Egypt’s proposal at a review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- was significant.
In their first meeting last year, Netanyahu and Obama reaffirmed a 40-year-old American “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to Israel’s nuclear capacities.
“Why repeat this publicly? Because between then and now there was the NPT conference that may have created the impression that there is a change in the American view,” Meridor told Reuters in an interview.
The White House said Obama had further pledged to keep Israel, which has not signed the NPT, from being “singled out” at a meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog in Vienna in September as well as at the Egyptian-proposed regional conference in 2012.
“I think that this entire presentation gives a clear picture of the understanding between Israel and the United States in this matter, and sets the record straight,” Meridor said, reiterating Israel’s stand that it would have to be assured of reconciliation with its neighbours before it could consider a disarmament treaty.
Obama’s statement “was without a doubt a special and significant text. It was important for us, and it was important for the region,” Meridor said.
Israel neither confirms nor denies having nuclear weapons under an “ambiguity” strategy billed as warding off foes while avoiding public provocations that can spark regional arms races.
The official reticence, and its toleration in Washington, has long aggrieved many Arabs and Iranians -- especially given U.S.-led pressure on Tehran to rein in its nuclear programme.
Obama’s carrot-and-stick diplomacy with Iran has prompted some analysts to predict Netanyahu could face U.S. calls to accept curbs on Israeli capabilities in the name of parity.
Meridor, who rejects comparisons of Israel to NPT-signatory Iran, said there was no such “trade-off” in the works.
In a separate development on Wednesday, Israel’s Army Radio said the United States had offered to help Israel produce atomic energy despite Israel’s refusal to sign the NPT, which is designed to stop countries using civilian programmes as cover for building nuclear bombs.
Army Radio’s diplomatic correspondent said the reported offer could put Israel on a par with India, another NPT holdout which is openly nuclear-armed but in 2008 secured a U.S.-led deal granting it civilian nuclear imports.
By staying outside the NPT, Israel has avoided forswearing nuclear arms or admitting nuclear inspectors. But it has also lost out on assistance available to treaty signatories for producing civilian atomic energy.
Meridor declined to comment on the report, as did the U.S. embassy. “There are all kinds of discussions, which are by their nature very sensitive,” Meridor said.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan