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Israel refuses to address mounting international pressure to join nuclear treaty

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Thursday declined to address the international pressure that's been mounting for it to join the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, saying only that its refusal to acknowledge or deny it possesses atomic weapons is a pillar of its military deterrence.

Efforts to make the Middle East a nuclear-free zone have received new attention at a U.N. conference in New York currently reviewing the treaty. Arab states are seeking to press Israel to confirm it possesses the Middle East's only nuclear warheads, disputing the West's assessment that Iran is the region's greatest proliferation threat.

On Wednesday, The Associated Press disclosed that International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano has sent a letter soliciting proposals from the agency's 151 member states on how to persuade Israel to sign the treaty. And the world's five recognized nuclear-weapons powers — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China — reaffirmed the goal of a nuclear-free Middle East.

A string of Israeli officials, including a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the minister of atomic energy, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, the minister of strategic threats and the minister of communication, all refused to comment on the recent developments.

The latest pressure is putting the Jewish state in an uncomfortable position. It wants the international community to take stern action to prevent Iran from getting atomic weapons but at the same time brushes off calls to come clean about its own nuclear capabilities.

Israel's policy "is opaque and that's a strategic advantage," one government official said, reflecting his country's belief that enemies who see Israel as a nuclear power could be deterred from attacking.

He spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity.

He also noted that the treaty obligating nations to stop the spread of nuclear weapons didn't stop countries like Saddam Hussein's Iraq and now Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons programs. Tehran denies that accusation, which has also been made by the U.S. and other world powers.

Israel has said it wouldn't sign the nonproliferation treaty until a comprehensive Arab-Israel peace deal is in place. But U.S. Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher told the AP that the U.S. has been working for months with Egypt on the issue. And another Western diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity about other nations' contacts, said the Americans also have been in discussion with the Israelis.

Israel wouldn't comment on these remarks.

Although Israel has given no information on its nuclear program, it is universally believed to possess atomic weapons. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Israel a nuclear power in his 2006 confirmation hearing.

Israel's nuclear program is a key sore point in international nonproliferation efforts.

Arab countries have long complained of a double standard when the West asks them to stay nuclear-free while turning a blind eye to Israel's program.