CAIRO - Arab states and Iran are reviving a longstanding campaign for Israel to scrap its suspected nuclear arsenal after Libya declared it was renouncing its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
And Israel is finding it "increasingly difficult" to justify its arsenal, in the face of a "clever" Arab campaign and a reduced strategic threat following developments in Iraq, Iran and Libya, according to a British-based analyst.
Since Libya declared Friday it was renouncing its banned weapons programs, Egypt, Qatar, Bahrain, Algeria and non-Arab Iran have all urged Israel to follow suit.
On Monday, Egypt's government newspaper Al-Ahram called for an international conference aimed at ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, including Israel's "nuclear weapons."
Charles Heyman, senior defense analyst for Jane's Consultancy Group, said Monday that Arab states "were beginning cleverly to put pressure on Israel in a way that they have never been able to do before."
The drive amounts to using international institutions to pressure Israel to scrap its suspected nuclear programs and enlist the help of the United States, Israel's chief ally, Heyman told AFP.
"If the strategic argument no longer applies," Israel will find "it increasingly difficult" to justify its refusal to open up its suspected nuclear sites to inspection, Heyman said.
Egypt has long urged the Jewish state to ratify the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which would require admitting international inspectors, as a major step toward making the Middle East a region free of WMD.
In 2000, amid a five-year NPT review, Egypt led Arab states in pressuring Israel to sign the treaty, saying the Jewish state was sowing the seeds of instability as the only state in the region not to have signed the 1970 treaty.
Although Israel has never confirmed or denied that it possesses weapons of mass destruction, it has been considered a nuclear power since 1969 by the authorities in the United States.
Experts believe it has at least 200 nuclear warheads.
Israel has long declined to ratify the NPT amid fears Iraq and Iran had programs to build not only nuclear weapons but also chemical and biological warheads.
In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor at Osirak and in the 1991 Gulf war, Israelis donned gas masks when Iraq struck their cities with long-range missiles they feared might be armed with chemical weapons.
However, US forces toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in April and have yet to find evidence supporting pre-war allegations that Iraq had programs of weapons of mass destruction that posed a serious threat.
Iran itself signed up to a tough new inspections regime for its nuclear sites last week as part of a deal brokered by Britain, France and Germany in October to address US-led concerns that it had a covert weapons programme.
Syria amounts to one of the last potential strategic threats to Israel, but it is increasingly isolated and under US diplomatic and even military pressure, with US troops in neighboring Iraq, analysts say.
The Libyan government daily Al-Jamahiriya said Tripoli's decision robbed Israel of any pretext to keep its suspected WMD programs.
"Now, there is no more alibi," the newspaper said.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday called Libya's decision "a good step which has echos around the world, and it must also have an echo in Israel."
The Gulf states of Qatar and Bahrain welcomed Libya's move and expressed hope that the international community would now press Israel for a similar decision.
In Tehran, foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said Israel must now be forced to follow Libya's example.
"The Zionist regime is the principal threat to the safety of the region and the international community must put pressure so that this regime eliminates its weapons of mass destruction", said Asefi.
The Algerian foreign ministry said Libya had set an example that should be followed by Israel, which it charged continued to develop its nuclear arsenal and refused to submit to international inspections.
Copyright 2003 AFP