Lapid: Must not give Riyadh a path to nukes; FM: Could have Saudi deal in months

Opposition warns of ‘nuclear arms race’ in Middle East if Saudi Arabia granted permission to enrich uranium, as foreign minister says normalization agreement possible in early 2024

File: Incoming Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, left, and his predecessor Yair Lapid meet for a handover meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Foreign Ministry)
File: Incoming Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, left, and his predecessor Yair Lapid meet for a handover meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Foreign Ministry)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Thursday that he would welcome a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but warned that an agreement must not enable Riyadh to gain a path to acquiring nuclear weapons.

The US is pushing Israel and Saudi Arabia to forge ties, and as part of the potential agreement, Riyadh is asking for a civilian nuclear program. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in addressing the issue on Wednesday, warned against nuclear escalation in the region but said that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia will need one also.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told top nuclear and security experts in Israel to cooperate with US negotiators on a proposal for a “US-run uranium enrichment operation” in Saudi Arabia, as part of a potential normalization deal between Jerusalem and Riyadh, a Thursday report said.

“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,” Lapid 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,” Lapid said.

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

Amid escalating hopes in Israel for a deal with the Saudis, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Thursday that the last details could be finalized as early as the start of 2024.

“The gaps can be bridged,” Cohen told Army Radio. “It will take time. But there is progress.”

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

Cohen dismissed concerns from some in the defense establishment and the opposition over the proposal that would see Riyadh establish a civilian nuclear program, reportedly with uranium enrichment on Saudi soil, saying there was no need to rush to judgment prematurely.

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

US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

As part of the framework, Saudi Arabia is also asking the US for a major mutual defense pact and significant arms deals, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

Cohen also addressed an open letter to Netanyahu published a day earlier by 12 Likud MKs warning the premier against making concessions on the Palestinians to Saudi Arabia.

Cohen said any potential concessions were “not a roadblock to peace” and again emphasized that the details of the proposals have not been agreed upon or publicized.

“A deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia will be an agreement between the Jewish people and the Muslim world, and I believe other Arab countries will join,” he said.

Cohen also praised as “historic” the bin Salman interview broadcast hours earlier, in which the Saudi royal said that “every day we get closer” to his country normalizing ties with Israel.

Meanwhile, former prime minister Ehud Barak, also speaking to Army Radio, also raised concerns about Riyadh having a nuclear program.

“It is a very serious issue that cannot be dealt with easily and requires deep discussion,” said Barak, who also previously served as defense minister and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff.

“If Iran and Saudi Arabia are on the brink of nuclear weapons, and then next it could be Turkey and Egypt — then there is no more Israeli supremacy,” he said. Israel has an alleged nuclear weapons program, according to foreign reports.

“However, the development with Saudi Arabia is important. It has meaning even though there was no peace or war, and they do not endanger Israel. It is an important country,” he said.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak speaks at a protest in Tel Aviv against the government’s planned judicial overhaul, February 25, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

Barak, an outspoken critic of the government’s contentious plans to overhaul the judiciary, said that he would prefer for any breakthrough with Riyadh to happen under a “normal” government.

“I am not saying that Netanyahu cannot have a normal government. He could go to the Knesset and stop all of the crazy legislation and change his partners in the government,” Barak said, apparently referring to far-right religious coalition members.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli also warned against Saudi Arabia becoming a nuclear nation, saying that it could lead to a regional arms race.

“It is impossible to ignore the fact that another country in the Middle East will enrich uranium. This could create a nuclear arms race,” Michaeli told the Kan public broadcaster.

In August, Lapid referred to the potential agreement, saying “the deal at the moment endangers Israel’s security and the region. We must not give Saudi Arabia any level of uranium enrichment.”

Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, on July 17, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Unnamed Israeli and US officials told the Wall Street Journal on Thursday that Netanyahu has told top nuclear and security experts in Israel to cooperate with US negotiators on a proposal for a “US-run uranium enrichment operation” in Saudi Arabia, as part of a potential normalization deal between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

According to the report, officials from Israel and the United States are working together on a plan that would potentially see the Gulf kingdom openly enrich uranium.

An unnamed senior Israel official told the newspaper that there would be “a lot” of safeguards on any potential program for uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia.

Experts told the Journal that while there are potential remote shutdown mechanisms that could be put in place in a nuclear facility, or systems that could speed up centrifuges until they break, there were no guarantees such arrangements would be failsafe.

The report said that US President Joe Biden has not yet agreed to the proposal, and noted that Washington officials are still looking at other alternatives.

A senior US administration official, who briefed reporters after Wednesday’s meeting between Biden and Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, said of the Saudi demand for US assistance in the establishment of a civilian nuclear program: “Whatever is done regarding civil nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia, or anybody else, will meet stringent US non-proliferation standards.”

The Saudi nuclear plan is not the only potential stumbling block. Bin Salman clarified Wednesday that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the potential normalization process and declared that Saudi Arabia will have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

“If they get one, we have to get one,” he told Fox News.

Bin Salman said Saudi Arabia is “concerned” when any country acquires a nuclear weapon.

However, he suggested that no one would use a nuclear weapon because this would mean starting a “war with the rest of the world.”

“The world cannot see another Hiroshima,” he added, referring to the Japanese city largely destroyed by a US nuclear bomb during World War II.

This photo released November 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in Natanz uranium enrichment facility near Natanz, Iran (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

The comments represented rare public remarks in English by bin Salman on the normalization effort, offering an additional degree of optimism about its chances hours after Biden and Netanyahu discussed the issue.

A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters after Wednesday’s Biden-Netanyahu meeting said the Israeli prime minister understands the importance of the Palestinian issue in the normalization talks.

This would mark a shift in Netanyahu’s thinking, since he has in the past sought to publicly downplay the centrality of the Palestinian component in Saudi normalization talks. Netanyahu has long chafed at making concessions to the Palestinians and is anyway now limited by a hardline coalition that overwhelmingly opposes a two-state solution.

But the Biden administration has long maintained that moves to significantly advance a two-state solution are essential for the deal to succeed, since the concessions will be needed to placate criticism of Saudi Arabia in the Muslim and Arab world, and in order to convince enough progressive Democrats in the Senate to forgo their reservations about Riyadh’s human rights record in order to back the agreement.

The Palestinian Authority, in talks with Saudi and American officials, has brought up its desire for US backing for recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN, the US reopening its consulate in Jerusalem that historically served Palestinians, the scrapping of congressional legislation characterizing the PLO as a terror organization, the Israeli transfer of West Bank territory to Palestinian control, and the razing of illegal Israeli outposts in the West Bank, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Jacob Magid and Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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