Gallant said to press US for clarifications on proposed Saudi nuclear program

In statement, defense minister stresses importance of ‘security arrangements’ tied to expanding Abraham Accords, reportedly arriving with list of queries for White House officials

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (L) meets with White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk in New York on August 29, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (L) meets with White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk in New York on August 29, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant asked White House National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk for clarifications regarding a possible Saudi nuclear program during their meeting in New York, according to a range of Hebrew media reports Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia has reportedly asked the US to green-light its development of a civilian nuclear program as part of its terms for the kingdom normalizing relations with Israel.

According to Army Radio, Gallant presented White House officials with a list of Israeli concerns over such efforts, based on assessments provided to him by security officials ahead of his trip to the US.

In addition to Israeli worries over potential Saudi nuclear power, Jerusalem is also reportedly seeking clarifications regarding advanced weapons the US could end up selling to Riyadh as part of any deal. The report said that no immediate answers were provided by the US officials in the meeting, but that responses are expected to be forthcoming.

An official statement from Gallant following his meeting with McGurk on Tuesday hinted at such a line of questioning, noting that the defense minister “emphasized the importance of security arrangements” in expanding ties with regional neighbors, as well as the “importance of preserving Israel’s qualitative military edge” amid such efforts.

Efforts have been ongoing for months to broker some sort of normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia with US backing. Riyadh’s demand for a green light from Washington to develop a nuclear program is seen as part of the broader US-Saudi talks that could see Israel and Saudi Arabia establish diplomatic ties. The Saudis are also believed to be seeking access to advanced American defense technology and a defense alliance with the US.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, right, escorts US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, as they arrive for a meeting with GCC Ministers at the GCC Secretariat in Riyadh on June 7, 2023. (Ahmed Yosri/Pool/AFP)

For its side of the bargain, the US is looking for Riyadh to significantly roll back its economic and military ties with China and Russia and bolster the truce that ended the civil war in Yemen.

US officials have repeatedly stressed, however, that such a deal does not appear imminent, and would also require far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians by Israel, something which seems unlikely to be secured in the current political climate.

Earlier this month, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer said in an interview that Israel does not necessarily have a problem with a Saudi civilian nuclear program. Netanyahu’s office later issued a statement downplaying the remark, although a source close to the premier was quoted by Hebrew media reiterating that Israel “doesn’t rule out” the idea of Riyadh enriching uranium.

“You have countries in the region that can have civilian nuclear power. That’s a different story than a nuclear weapons program,” Dermer said in an interview with PBS. Asked whether Israel would agree to Saudi Arabia having “civil nuclear capacity, including enrichment” in exchange for normalization, Dermer responded: “Like so many things, the devil is in the details, and we’re going to have to look at what ultimately is agreed upon.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) hosts Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, August 17, 2023. (Secretary of State Blinken, via Twitter)

A delegation of senior Palestinian officials is reportedly set to travel to Saudi Arabia in the coming weeks to discuss the demands Riyadh is set to make of Israel as part of a potential normalization agreement.

Last week, Axios reported that Dermer offered little in terms of gestures for the Palestinians during his recent series of meetings in Washington, saying that Israel’s concession is its agreement to Saudi Arabia’s development of a civilian nuclear program.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia has  proposed renewing its aid to the Palestinian Authority — a possible sign that Riyadh is looking to coax Ramallah into backing the normalization effort.

The report claims that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman first made the offer to renew aid — frozen completely in 2016 amid graft allegations — when Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas visited the Gulf kingdom in April.

A deal with Jerusalem would likely be unpopular for many Saudis given the strong pro-Palestinian sentiment in the Gulf country. Therefore, a stamp of approval from Ramallah on a normalization deal with Israel could help mitigate public blowback in Saudi Arabia and in the Muslim world more broadly.

Most Popular
read more: