Lapid said to tell US lawmakers: Giving Saudis uranium for peace ‘endangers Israel’

Opposition leader, who shares view on TV network too, reportedly tells visiting Dems that Riyadh enrichment capabilities would harm region

File: Opposition leader Yair Lapid during a discussion and a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
File: Opposition leader Yair Lapid during a discussion and a vote at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid told Democratic Party lawmakers visiting Israel he opposes a potential Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization deal that allows Riyadh to enrich uranium, according to a Thursday report.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that a potential deal under discussion would see the US provide aid on developing a civilian nuclear program and give major security guarantees to Saudi Arabia, while Riyadh would take major steps to distance itself from China and Israel would take significant action toward creating an independent Palestinian state.

“I oppose any agreement that includes uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia. The deal at the moment endangers Israel’s security and the region. It is forbidden to give Saudi Arabia any level of uranium enrichment,” Lapid told the congressional representatives, according to a Channel 13 report that did not provide a citation.

The report said Lapid came to the conclusions after meeting with security officials on the matter. Israeli officials have expressed apparent discomfort with the Saudi demand for a civilian nuclear program, which could eventually be appropriated for military purposes and set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Lapid made similar remarks publicly in an interview with Channel 12 news Thursday.

“I have no problem with a civilian nuclear program. There are Middle Eastern countries that have civilian nuclear programs. What they don’t have is uranium enrichment on their soil. This is what is on the table now and it cannot be allowed to be on the table. Israel can’t agree to uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia, because it endangers Israel’s security,” he said.

File: Then-US chief of protocol Cam Henderson assists then-US president Donald J. Trump, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan with the documents during the signing of the Abraham Accords, September 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House Photo Andrea Hanks, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lapid added that he was supportive of a deal with Riyadh but not at such a cost, warning: “It will harm our struggle against Iran. It will lead to a regional [arms] race.”

Former national security adviser Eyal Hulata also told Kan news Thursday that Israel could not support a civilian nuclear project in the Middle East that includes local enrichment.

“To give legitimacy for uranium enrichment on the soil of [other] countries in the Middle East poses a danger to Israel,” he said.

The Likud party responded to Lapid’s remarks Thursday, saying “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought four historic peace agreements that only strengthened the security and standing of the State of Israel, and that is what he will continue to do.”

Under his previous government, Netanyahu inked normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Sudan also committed to forging ties, but that process has since stalled.

“It would be better for Lapid, who gave Hezbollah free Israeli gas reserves, not to preach to Prime Minister Netanyahu,” the statement read, referring to a deal that demarcated a maritime border between Israel and Lebanon that was signed under Lapid’s government in 2022.

After the WSJ report was released, both an Israeli official and the White House emphasized that there had been no major progress toward a deal.

File: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman chairs the Arab summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Additionally, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has reportedly told aides that he is not ready to fully normalize ties with Israel and is not eager to reach an agreement with the current hardline government under Netanyahu.

On July 27, The New York Times also reported that US President Joe Biden had yet to decide whether he would ultimately sign off on the maneuver but had still instructed his aides to try and reach a deal.

Saudi Arabia is seeking a NATO-like mutual security treaty that would obligate the US to come to its defense if the latter is attacked; 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, the NYT said, confirming previous reporting in The Times of Israel.

In exchange, the US is looking for Riyadh to offer an unprecedentedly large aid package to Palestinian institutions in the West Bank, curtail deals with Chinese technology firms like Huawei, use US dollars instead of Chinese currency to price oil sales, reject a Beijing plan to establish a military base on Saudi soil and bolster the truce that ended the civil war in Yemen.

As for the specific steps Israel will have to take vis-a-vis the Palestinians, those have not yet been hashed out. A diplomat familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel Tuesday that Riyadh is not yet familiar enough with the issue in order to come up with specific demands.

The diplomat said the issue is not “burning” for MBS and that he has little appetite for the current leadership of the Palestinian Authority. However, the crown prince also recognizes that he cannot reach a deal with Israel that neglects the Palestinians, given the public sentiment in Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s view of itself as the guardian of Muslim holy sites, the diplomat said.

For his part, Netanyahu maintained this week that the Palestinian issue is merely a box “you have to check… to say that you’re doing it,” indicating that he did not anticipate that the demands on that front would be particularly steep.

File: National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi speaks at the Herzliya Conference at Reichman University on May 23, 2023. (Gilad Kavalerchik)

National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told the Journal that Israel has yet to be presented with any terms. “At the moment, we don’t even know where to begin. [The US and Saudi Arabia] are still dealing with basic issues between them, so apparently it’s premature even for them to discuss it.”

Still, Hanegbi said he has “full confidence” that “whatever the United States will decide” on the issue would address Israeli concerns.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday in which he posited 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 Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations that they are protected from Iranian aggression, rendering their nuclear ambitions “unnecessary.”

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