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U.S., Russia, UK back Israel at meeting

VIENNA -- In a boost to Israel, Russia joined the United States and Britain yesterday in backing the Jewish state's view that the Middle East cannot be turned into a nuclear arms-free zone without progress on regional peace.

The three nations, charged with registering new members to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, also blunted Arab efforts to get them involved in creating such a zone, telling an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting that was the sole responsibility of countries in the region.

The three-nation statement was made at a rare venue, a meeting bringing Israel and the Arab states together for a discussion of how to work toward establishing a nuclear-arms free zone. While nearly 100 nations attended the forum, it was primarily meant to allow those two opposing camps to exchange views on the issue, one of many dividing Israel from its Arab neighbors.

Organizers had warned against high expectations, and officials at the closed two-day meeting said it ended Friday without bridging the differences.

"This was a small positive step," said Norwegian Ambassador Jan Petersen, who chaired the gathering, acknowledging "there is a very, very long way ahead" to reach the goal of a Mideast nuclear-weapons free zone. "There are a lot of difficult issues, which will have to be tackled," he told reporters.

Still the three-nation statement was significant. Russia is traditionally in the Arab corner and Moscow's decision to join in the statement of support for Israel's view was a rare nod from Moscow recognizing Israel's security concerns.

The Arabs say Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal represents the biggest threat to Mideast peace. But Israel says Iran is the greatest threat to the region through its refusal to heed UN Security Council resolutions. -- AP

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