FM: Saudi deal with US defense pact would make Gulf nuclear ambitions ‘unnecessary’

Foreign minister Eli Cohen says security treaty would reassure Washington’s regional allies that they are protected from Iranian aggression, and negate the need for atomic weapons

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen seen during an interview at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen seen during an interview at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, June 12, 2023. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Tuesday that if the United States were to agree to a defense pact with Riyadh as part of a potential normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, it would reassure Gulf nations that they are protected from Iranian aggression, rendering their nuclear ambitions “unnecessary.”

As part of moves toward normalization with Israel, Riyadh is seeking a NATO-like mutual security treaty that would obligate the US to come to its defense if it’s attacked.

In addition, Riyadh wants an explicit agreement for a civilian nuclear program monitored and backed by the US, and the ability to purchase more advanced weaponry from Washington such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antiballistic missile defense system, which could be used to combat Iran’s increasing missile arsenal.

In an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal, Cohen posited that a defense pact between Washington and Riyadh could satisfy regional concerns about Iranian hostility.

“[A] defense pledge could reassure Middle Eastern nations, primarily Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states,” he wrote.

“This approach would make individual nuclear ambitions unnecessary, bolster regional stability, and promote the peace and normalization agenda,” Cohen said. Israel has long been concerned about the possibility of a civilian nuclear reactor being converted for military applications.

(L) Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP); (C) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem (Alex Kolomoisky/Pool/Flash90); (L) US President Joe Biden on November 2, 2022 in Washington, DC (Michael A. McCoy / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

“A united front, bringing together moderate Sunni nations and Israel, would be an effective check on Iran’s growing ambitions,” Cohen wrote, adding that Tehran still needed to be prevented from getting a nuclear weapon “through international economic and diplomatic pressure and a credible military threat.”

Cohen said South Korea, which has a defense commitment from the US, could be used as “a potential blueprint for de-escalation” in the Middle East

“South Korea, despite living under the shadow of a nuclear-armed neighbor and having the means to develop its own nuclear weapons, has abstained from nuclear-weapons development,” Cohen wrote. “The US’s defense commitment acts as South Korea’s deterrent against Northern aggression.”

In addition to Riyadh’s requirements, the steps required from Israel in return for normalized ties reportedly include an official promise never to annex the West Bank, and a commitment not to establish any more settlements or expand the boundaries of existing ones, to leave the door open for a potential future Palestinian state.

Earlier this week, Cohen told a widely read Arabic news site that if Israel has to offer concessions to the Palestinians to conclude a deal with Saudi Arabia, it will find a way to do so.

“The Palestinian issue will not be an obstacle to peace,” Cohen said in an interview with the London-based Elaph, seen as a conduit for public messaging between Jerusalem and Riyadh. “We also proved this in the Abraham Accords. We all have an interest in improving life in the areas of the Palestinian Authority.”

A construction site for new housing in the settlement of Shiloh, in the West Bank, on June 21, 2023 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In an interview released Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also indicated he was open to gestures to Palestinians if a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia depended on them, and hinted that he would not let hardline coalition members block an agreement.

“Do I think it’s feasible to have that, and do I think that political questions will block it? I doubt it,” Netanyahu told Bloomberg News. “If there’s political will, there will be a political way to achieve normalization and a formal peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“I think there’s enough room to discuss possibilities,” he added.

The comments came amid concerns that any concessions toward the Palestinians were unlikely to be backed by far-right elements in the Netanyahu government, and after the opposition’s Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid and National Unity leader Benny Gantz reportedly said they would not join a coalition under the Likud leader. They would, however, reportedly consider supporting a deal with Saudi Arabia from outside the government.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz (L) attend the swearing-in ceremony of the 25th Knesset, at the parliament building in Jerusalem, November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu has long sought what is seen as an elusive normalization deal with the Saudis, repeatedly describing it as one of the top priorities of his government.

Such a deal would see Riyadh offer an unprecedentedly large aid package to Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, significantly roll back its growing relationship with China, and help bring an end to the civil war in Yemen.

It is unclear where exactly talks stand, and what Israel’s involvement in them is. Last month, US President Joe Biden said, “We’re a long way from [a Saudi deal]. We got a lot to talk about.”

Lazar Berman and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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