UNITED NATIONS – Israel is blaming its Arab neighbors for the failure of progress toward achieving a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, saying that "if a serious regional effort has not emerged in the Middle East during the last five years, it is not because of Israel."
The statement by Israel, distributed Thursday to a global conference on a landmark disarmament treaty, is the country's first public comment since it showed up as a surprise observer. Israel has never publicly declared its nuclear weapons, and it is not a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
As an observer nation, it cannot address the ongoing conference, where many countries have expressed frustration that a key meeting toward a Middle East nuclear weapons-free zone, promised for 2012, has not taken place. That goal was set the last time the conference met five years ago.
Establishing such a zone in one of the world's most tense regions is an area of rare agreement these days between the United States and Russia, which otherwise have descended into a Cold War-like gloom. Both countries this week urged progress, with Russia expressing its "grave dissatisfaction" at the delay and Secretary of State John Kerry calling the proposed zone an "ambitious goal and fraught with challenges" but worth pursuing.
And Iran, which Israel has loudly protested over its nuclear program, this week has used the stalled zone as a chance to fire back.
Speaking on behalf of more than 100 mostly developing countries, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Monday called for Israel to give up its nuclear weapons, saying they are a regional threat.
Israel's statement says it has been willing to meet with its neighbors toward setting an agenda for talks on a Middle East nuclear-free zone, but that after five rounds of consultations with some of its Arab neighbors in Switzerland between October 2013 and June 2014, the other states discontinued the talks.
The statement notes that the consultations were "the first direct engagement between Israel and its neighbors on this issue in over 20 years."
Israel "responded positively" to invitations by a Finnish facilitator in October and January of this year for a sixth round of consultations, but they were postponed several times and didn't take place, the statement says.
"This strident opposition to conduct a direct dialogue with Israel ... underlines and reinforces the mistrust and suspicion between the states in the region," it says. "Ultimately, it is difficult to understand how any disarmament, arms control and regional security issues can be addressed without any direct dialogue between the regional states, as the Group of Arab States suggests."
Israel's statement doesn't explain what specific issues got in the way of continuing the talks, but it calls for dialogue "without external auspices that do not emanate from the region."
Israeli officials say the decision to attend the conference as an observer for the first time since 1995 is a "reflection of Israel's commitment to the principle of nonproliferation." They also called for "direct engagement and dialogue" with Arab states on a broad range of security issues, based on consensus. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
For their part, the Palestinians, marking their first conference as a state party to the disarmament treaty, this week echoed the Arab Group in calling on Israel, "the only state in the Middle East that remains outside the NPT, to immediately sign and ratify the NPT without further delay."
Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.