update deskMiddle East

Netanyahu directs nuclear experts to find Saudis path to enrich uranium

Israeli officials are "quietly working" with the White House to develop a "U.S.-run, uranium-enrichment operation" in the kingdom.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023. Photo by Amit Shabi/POOL.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on June 18, 2023. Photo by Amit Shabi/POOL.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed his country’s leading nuclear and security specialists to work with U.S. negotiators to find a compromise that lets Saudi Arabia enrich uranium, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

Israeli officials are “quietly working” with the White House to develop a “U.S.-run, uranium-enrichment operation” in Saudi Arabia for a civilian nuclear program, a key condition of the kingdom for accepting a normalization agreement with Israel, officials from both countries told the Journal.

Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank that opposes the proposal, told the newspaper that Israeli support for it represents “a radical policy shift for a country that has opposed nuclear proliferation in the Middle East since inception.”

U.S. President Joe Biden has not yet signed off on the idea of permitting uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia, officials told the Journal. The U.S. is worried that the Saudis may go to China instead. China National Nuclear Corp., a state-owned company, has bid to build a nuclear plant in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, near the border with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“Saudi officials acknowledged that exploring the issue with China was a way of goading the Biden administration to compromise on its nonproliferation requirements,” the Journal reported in August.

Israel and the U.S. appear ready to accept the risks of a nuclear Saudi Arabia in return for normalization, which Israel’s prime minister has said would be a “quantum leap … it will change Israel’s relationship with the rest of the Arab world.”

Netanyahu and Biden spoke openly about the possibility of an agreement with Riyadh in a tête-à-tête meeting in New York on Wednesday.

“Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia. And I think such a peace would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state, and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” said Netanyahu, who has previously signaled that a peace deal with the Saudis was in the offing.

Biden said, “If you and I, 10 years ago, were talking about normalization with Saudi Arabia, I think we’d look at each other like, ‘Who’s been drinking what?'”

Netanyahu responded: “Good Irish whiskey.”

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Fox News on Wednesday that peace with Israel “get[s] closer” every day.

“We are concerned of any country getting a nuclear weapon,” he also said. The prince added that if Iran gets one, Saudi Arabia would do the same: “We will have to get one.”

Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid on Thursday warned against allowing Riyadh to enrich uranium as part of a peace accord.

“A normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia is a welcome thing. But not at the cost of allowing the Saudis to develop nuclear weapons. Not at the cost of a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East,” the Yesh Atid Party chairman said in a statement. 

“The Saudi crown prince already spoke yesterday about the possibility of Saudi Arabia having nuclear weapons. All his life, Netanyahu fought precisely against such moves. These are the foundations of our nuclear strategy.

“Strong democracies do not sacrifice their security interests for politics. It is dangerous and irresponsible. Israel must not agree to any type of uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia,” Lapid said.

Also Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that the details of a normalization agreement could be finalized as early as the beginning of next year.

“The gaps can be bridged. It will take time, but progress is being made,” the top diplomat told Army Radio.

“I think there is a likelihood that in the first quarter of 2024, in four to five months, we could be at a point where the details are finalized,” said Cohen.

“There are many details for this kind of agreement, and Israel’s security takes precedence over everything. We want peace, but also security,” he said.

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