* Verbal sparring sign of tension over Arab resolution
* U.S. says Arab push could undermine peace efforts
(Adds Syria comments, details)
By Fredrik Dahl and Sylvia Westall
VIENNA, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Egypt hit out at Israel on Wednesday for questioning its commitment to regional nuclear non-proliferation, underlining tension between the Jewish state and Arab countries at a meeting of the U.N. atomic watchdog.
In an unusually blunt statement at the International Atomic Energy Agency, an Egyptian delegate told the IAEA’s annual 151-nation assembly gathering that Israel’s representative had demonstrated “the full meaning of the word chutzpah.”
The Yiddish word, also used in the English language, means “gall” or “nerve”.
“Unlike Israel, which is widely known to pay no more than lip-service to the objective of a nuclear weapon-free Middle East, Egypt’s consistent efforts ... are extensively and well documented,” Aly Omar Sirry said in English.
Arab countries have put forward a resolution at the IAEA calling on Israel, the only country in the Middle East outside the pact, to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and put all its atomic facilities under the agency’s oversight.
The United States says the Arab-led push could derail an Egyptian-proposed conference in 2012 towards establishing a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, suggesting Israel is unlikely to attend if the resolution is approved.
Washington also warns it would send a “negative” signal to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. [ID:nLDE68F0QN]
Israel, widely believed to have the region’s only nuclear arsenal, says it will not consider joining the NPT until there is comprehensive Middle East peace. If it signed the pact, it would have to forswear nuclear weaponry.
Arab states say there cannot be peace in the Middle East until Israel gives up nuclear arms. Israel has never confirmed nor denied having atomic bombs, under a policy of ambiguity to deter its Arab and Islamic adversaries.
On Tuesday at the IAEA, a senior Israeli official condemned what he called “continuous ill-motivated efforts to single out and to condemn the State of Israel.”
Director General Shaul Chorev of Israel’s Atomic Energy Organisation also said Egypt, one of the sponsors of the non-binding resolution, “must have lost its interest in the conversion of the Middle East into a nuclear weapons free zone.”
Chorev said the “proposed resolution is incompatible with basic principles and norms of international law.”
Responding on Wednesday, Sirry, the Egyptian representative, said Israel had chosen “to single itself out” because of its rejection of the NPT. India, Pakistan and North Korea are also outside the 1970 U.N. treaty.
Sirry added: “Beyond Israel’s feeble attempts to question Egypt’s steadfast commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation, the only purpose that the remarks by the representative of Israel has served was to demonstrate to this body the full meaning of the word chutzpah.”
Israel regard Iran and Syria as the Middle East’s main proliferation threats. Allies Tehran and Damascus deny ever having atom bomb programmes, but both are under IAEA probes.
Syria’s IAEA envoy called on countries to support the resolution on Israel, in a vote expected later this week. A similar text won narrow backing at last year’s IAEA assembly.
Bassam Sabbagh said it was “a clear message expressing the anxiety and concern of a large portion of the international community” about Israel’s nuclear capabilities. (Editing by Jon Boyle)