Vienna: A bitter row over Israel’s assumed nuclear arsenal looks set to dominate the annual general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency which begins Monday.

Every year at the week-long conference which brings together all 151 member states of the IAEA, Arab nations table a resolution urging Israel to foreswear atomic weapons and sign up to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Because the resolution is non-binding and the Jewish state — believed to be the only Middle East power to possess nuclear weapons — steadfastly refuses to become a signatory of the NPT, it is purely symbolic.

But the issue has nevertheless led to long and bitter debates at past conferences, pitting highly developed western countries against emerging powers, particularly in the Middle East.

When the resolution was passed with a very narrow majority last year, the IAEA’s new director general Yukiya Amano was instructed to “work with member states towards achieving” the goal of persuading Israel to join the NPT.

And Amano provided an update of his efforts in an 81-page report published at the beginning of September.

Nevertheless, Arab states quickly dismissed Amano’s findings as “weak and disappointing” and criticised the report for being “devoid of any substance and not up to the typical level of the agency’s reporting.”

They accused the IAEA, which has long been investigating both Iran and Syria for alleged illicit nuclear activity, of using “double standards” when dealing with Israel.

By contrast, the United States and its western allies believe that pressing ahead with the resolution again this year could jeopardise newly-launched Middle East peace talks.

It would also not help in efforts to persuade Israel to attend a conference in 2012 on freeing the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction, they argue.

At a time when US President Obama and State Secretary Hillary Clinton were “actively pursuing Middle East peace …. now is not the time and the IAEA is not the place for this divisive resolution,” Washington’s ambassador to the IAEA, Glyn Davies told reporters on the sideline of a meeting of the IAEA’s 35-member board last week.

It was “important that we avoid engaging here in Vienna in a very divisive, tough debate. A resolution, if it’s adopted could threaten these talks, could send a very bad signal,” he said.

Washington’s concern is shown by the decision to fly in President Barack Obama’s top nuclear advisor, Gary Samore, to Vienna last to try and persuade Arab nations to drop their resolution.

The annual conference, scheduled to run from September 20-24, will be opened with a message from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Monday, followed by the opening address by IAEA chief Amano.

The agenda for the rest of the week is heavy, with topics ranging from the election of member states to the board of governors, the 2011 budget, nuclear security and technical coperation.

The debate on Israeli’s nuclear capabilities, one of the last items on the agenda, will come towards the end of the week.