JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has withdrawn from a nuclear security summit in Washington next week, fearing Muslim powers would use it to demand that Israel give up its presumed nuclear arsenal.
Netanyahu, who plans to send his deputy to the April 12-13 conference instead, decided to cancel "after learning that some countries including Egypt and Turkey plan to say Israel must sign the NPT", an Israeli official said on Friday.
By staying outside the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Israel has avoided having to pledge not to seek nuclear weaponry and to admit international inspectors to its Dimona reactor, widely assumed to have fuelled the region's sole atomic arsenal.
Netanyahu's attendance at the 47-country summit would have been unprecedented. Israeli premiers long shunned such forums, hoping to dampen scrutiny on their secret nuclear policies.
Aides said Netanyahu originally agreed to go after being reassured by the United States that the summit communique would focus on efforts to secure fissile materials and be devoid of language challenging Israel's self-styled nuclear "ambiguity".
Coordination between the allies has been clouded, however, by rifts over stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
U.S. President Barack Obama, having held tense White House talks last month with Netanyahu, scheduled no work meetings with him on the summit's sidelines.
A senior Egyptian diplomat said he had no knowledge of a plan to shift attention onto Israel at the summit and accused Netanyahu of trying to evade questions on the Palestinian issue.
"We believe that Netanyahu withdrew from the summit because he did not want to face President Obama and is using Egypt and Turkey as an excuse," the diplomat said.
But Turkey, whose Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has stepped up criticism of the Jewish state since last year's Gaza war, confirmed he would single out Israel while in Washington.
"Turkey asserts that Israel should be free of nuclear weapons like all countries in the region, and this view will be expressed at the summit," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
Both Egyptian and Turkish diplomats played down the prospect of the NPT coming up at the summit, saying the appropriate place would be next month's U.N. review conference on the treaty.
A White House spokesman welcomed Netanyahu's stand-in, Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, to the summit, adding: "Israel is a close ally and we look forward to continuing to work closely on issues related to nuclear security."
Aides said Netanyahu had planned to drum up support at the summit for sanctions against arch-foe Iran, which the West suspects of seeking nuclear weapons despite denials from Tehran. Neither Iran nor North Korea will be attending.
"This conference is about nuclear terrorism," Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday. "And I'm not concerned that anyone will think that Israel is a terrorist regime. Everybody knows a terrorist and rogue regime when they see one, and believe me they see quite a few -- around Israel."
Israel says its nuclear secrecy helps ward off enemies while avoiding the kind of provocations that can trigger arms races.
The official reticence, and its tacit acceptance by the United States, has long aggrieved Arab and Muslim powers.
Like India and Pakistan -- both also scheduled to attend the Nuclear Security Summit -- Israel is outside the NPT. Unlike them, it has not openly tested or deployed atomic weapons.
News of Netanyahu's withdrawal from the summit was noted by U.S. Republicans, who saw it as a snub of a close U.S. ally by the Democratic president.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Nasr in Jerusalem, Tulay Karadeniz in Konya, Turkey, Sherine El Madany in Cairo, and Steve Holland in New Orleans; editing by Angus MacSwan)