US official: Nuclear component of near-final Saudi deal ‘very much in our interests’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan (R) receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretariat in Riyadh on April 29, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP)
Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan (R) receives US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretariat in Riyadh on April 29, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool/AFP)

The component of the near-final bilateral agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia that will allow Riyadh to establish a civil nuclear program will advance Washington’s interests, a senior Biden administration official tells reporters in a briefing.

“There is a civil nuclear cooperation element, which we believe is very much in our interests [due to] the way this has been structured. It has been done by our non-proliferation experts… in a very rigorous way,” the senior official says.

The civil nuclear cooperation is one of several bilateral elements, along with a security component and an economic component to the broader diplomatic initiative that the US is looking to sign with Saudi Arabia, the official says.

The bilateral package is “very focused on a convergence of the interests that we want to see secured for a very long-term basis,” the official says, noting that the Defense, Energy and State Departments were closely involved in crafting those agreements.

While the bilateral agreements were all but finalized over the weekend, the entire deal hinges on a Palestinian component — the establishment of a pathway to a two-state solution, the official acknowledges.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly made clear that he is not interested in making such concessions to the Palestinians, even if it is in exchange for Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, May 6, 2024. (Amir Cohen / POOL / AFP)

But this has not stopped the US from trying to advance the initiative. It was a top agenda item during US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s nearly four-hour meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Saturday. Afterward, Riyadh issued a statement saying a near-final set of bilateral arrangements had been reached with Washington.

Sullivan briefed Netanyahu on those developments when he arrived in Israel on Sunday. “The Israeli officials took that on board, and we’ll continue to consult with them,” the senior US official says.

Some Biden officials have suggested that the US is running out of time to secure a deal before the 2024 presidential election and that the administration is nearing a point where it will simply choose to publicly present the diplomatic initiative and force Netanyahu to make a decision.

But the senior official briefing reporters says that wasn’t the approach during Sullivan’s recent meetings. “There was no ultimatum or ‘last chance or it can’t be done.'”

Displaced Palestinians line up to receive food in Rafah, on the southern Gaza Strip, on May 19, 2024 (Photo by AFP)

As for Saudi Arabia, the official suggested that Riyadh is no less interested in a deal than Washington is.

“We are very realistic about this. In fact, we are not pushing it. We are basically facilitating it. The Saudis… remain very interested in this possibility, but with the emphasis that there has to be a credible pathway for the Palestinians. That is a fundamental component of the deal,” the senior official says.

The official asserts that Riyadh is “prepared to do an awful lot with tremendous benefit for the Palestinians,” including assistance in the post-war stabilization of Gaza.

Stressing that a deal with Saudi Arabia requires the war in Gaza to wind down, the senior US official said Sullivan during his meetings in Israel this week discussed the need to pursue interim political arrangements that transition to a “stabilization phase” in the Strip.

“That conversation is very much ongoing. There are disagreements within the Israeli system on this, which I think are very natural,” the senior US official says, apparently referring to criticism of Netanyahu by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz over the premier’s refusal to advance a viable alternative to Hamas rule in Gaza.

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