PMO downplays remark, but source repeats Dermer's sentiment

Minister says Israel may be open to Saudi uranium enrichment under normalization deal

Close Netanyahu confidant Ron Dermer says Jerusalem would ‘have to look at what ultimately is agreed upon’; Lapid argues allowing such a move would endanger Israel’s security

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer arrives at an event at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer arrives at an event at the President's Residence in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, a close confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has indicated that Israel may be open to the possibility of acquiescing to Saudi Arabia’s reported demand to build a civil nuclear power plant, as part of a US-brokered normalization deal with Jerusalem.

Netanyahu’s office later issued a clarification downplaying, 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.

In an interview with PBS posted on Friday, Dermer drew the distinction between pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and nuclear weapons.

“You have countries in the region that can have civilian nuclear power. That’s a different story than a nuclear weapons program,” said the minister, who last week met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials with a top-level Israeli delegation for talks on a potential Jerusalem-Riyadh deal.

In the interview, PBS’s Nick Schifrin asked Dermer whether Israel would agree to Saudi Arabia having “civil nuclear capacity, including enrichment” in exchange for normalization, to which he 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.”

“[The Saudis] could go to China or they can go to France tomorrow, and they could set up — ask them to set up a civil nuclear program and to allow for domestic enrichment. They could do that tomorrow if they wanted to. So the question that I asked myself is, if the US is involved in this, what will that mean 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road, 30 years down the road, and what’s the alternative? There are other issues the Saudis have put forward,” he said.

Enriching uranium locally lifts several restrictions on the path to developing nuclear weapons or weaponizing a civilian nuclear program. The only Middle Eastern countries that currently enrich uranium are Iran and Israel, according to the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control. Israel maintains a policy of ambiguity and has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons.

In his interview, Dermer also reiterated the longstanding Israeli position that it will oppose any country in the region arming itself with nuclear weapons, but did not revisit in the interview the issue of enrichment specifically, which is a key component of nuclear weapons programs and the source of the ongoing dispute between Iran and the West.

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

“We’re not going to agree to any nuclear weapons program with any of our neighbors,” Dermer said in the interview. “And the question will be, when it comes to the details of an agreement, what are the safeguards? And what happens if they take another path, if they take a path with the Chinese or something else? We have to think through that whole thing.”

But, he added, “let’s not underestimate the impact that an Israeli-Saudi peace agreement could have on the region and the world.” Such an accord would prompt “several other Arab countries, and Muslim countries” to follow, Dremer said, adding: “And I think it’s the ultimate game-changer.”

Dermer’s comments drew condemnation on Sunday from Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, who accused him of “endangering Israel’s security.”

Lapid in his statement reiterated his opposition to allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium. “We can reach an agreement that strengthens our national security also without having Israel sign an authorization for uranium enrichment in the Middle East,” said the opposition leader.

The Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday issued a statement clarifying that “Dermer said that ‘Israel did not agree to a nuclear program of any of its neighboring countries,'” adding that “this was and remains Israel’s policy” — while omitting that the minister had referred specifically to nuclear weapons in that sentence during the interview.

The statement added that Netanyahu had signed “four historic peace agreements that strengthened Israel’s security and position — and will continue to do so,” in reference to the four signatories to the 2020 Abraham Accords: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

However, Channel 13 news quoted an unnamed source close to Netanyahu appearing to confirm Dermer’s sentiment: “Israel doesn’t rule [it] out — but first wants to know what the level of American monitoring of such a process would be, what would be the level of involvement and what would be Israel’s insurance policy, and accordingly devise a clear position.”

Saudi Arabia is a cosignatory of the NPT, a treaty that stipulates that cosignatories will not develop nuclear arms. However, the NPT does not mention enrichment. Iran and the United States, among other countries, have a dispute on whether Iran, which is also a cosignatory, is violating the treaty by enriching uranium for what Israel and multiple other countries and agencies say is a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs PBC shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, on April 14, 2023. (Planet Labs PBC via AP)

Saudi Arabia has reportedly set three conditions for signing a normalization agreement with Israel — access to advanced American defense technology, such as the THAAD missile system, the establishment of a defense alliance with the United States, and a green light to develop nuclear power for civilian purposes monitored and backed by the US.

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. Saudi Arabia is also expected to demand significant Israeli moves toward securing an independent Palestinian state, though Riyadh has yet to decide what those gestures might be.

Any new US treaty with Saudi Arabia would require the support of two-thirds of the Senate — a tall task, given Republican reticence to give President Joe Biden a foreign policy victory and major Democratic concern over Riyadh’s human rights record. In 2021, 28 Democrats in the Senate voted against a planned weapons sale to Saudi Arabia, while 22 voted in favor.

Late last month, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said Israel’s approval for a Saudi nuclear program would not be required.

“Dozens of countries operate civilian nuclear programs. This is not something that endangers them or their neighbors,” Hanegbi said, adding that the issue would be solely between Washington and Riyadh.

In 2020, the UAE, the only Arab-majority country with a functioning nuclear program, opened its reactors as part of a program that relies on importing enriched uranium. The UAE had pledged not to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel to extract plutonium, two pathways to an atomic weapon.

An undated photograph of the Barakah nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi’s desert. (Arun Girija/WAM via AP, File)

Jordan, which signed a peace accord with Israel in 1994, is also seeking to set up a civilian nuclear program, which it said it would run on uranium mined locally and sent to the US for enrichment.

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