JERUSALEM – Israel's defense minister said in remarks published Thursday that the Middle East is too unruly for a region-wide nuclear arms ban, arguing that the Muslim world must first "behave like Western Europe."
Defense Minister Ehud Barak also said Iran's nuclear program is a threat to world peace. His comments come ahead of a U.S.-sponsored world meeting later this month to discourage nuclear proliferation.
Israel is widely believed to possess nuclear arms, though it refuses to confirm or deny it. Barak made no mention of Israeli weapons in the interview, but pointedly said Israel would not agree to a nuclear weapons ban in the current climate.
"Until the Muslim world from Marakesh to Bangladesh behaves like Western Europe, there can be no debate on nuclear disarmament," Barak told the Yediot Ahronot daily. Extracts of the interview were published Thursday, while the full text is to run on Friday, the eve of the Jewish New Year.
Barak also called for the international community to step up efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, saying that "now is the time for diplomacy and intensifying sanctions."
Officials from the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany are to meet Iranian diplomats in Turkey on Oct.1, for the first time since a 2008 session in Geneva foundered over Iran's refusal to discuss its uranium enrichment program.
Israel considers Iran a strategic threat because of its nuclear program, long-range missiles that have Israel within their reach and references by Iran's president to the destruction of Israel.
Israel — whose war planes crippled Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 to prevent Saddam Hussein from developing nuclear weapons — has not ruled out a pre-emptive strike on Iran.
Israeli officials have compared Iran to Nazi Germany and its attempt to eradicate the Jewish people but Yediot Ahronot quoted Barak as saying that that while Iran poses a "challenge" to Israel and the world it cannot destroy Israel.
"Iran does not pose an existential threat to the state of Israel," he said. "Israel is strong." He did not elaborate.
Details and pictures leaked in 1986 to the Sunday Times of London by Mordechai Vanunu, a renegade former technician at Israel's Dimona nuclear plant, led foreign experts to conclude Israel has the world's sixth-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons.
Vanunu was later kidnapped by Israeli intelligence agents in Rome, brought back to Israel to stand trial, and served 18 years in prison, including 11 in solitary confinement. Vanunu is now free, but is banned from leaving the country.