Netanyahu denies squeezing Israel’s nuclear agency not to oppose Saudi enrichment

PM refutes TV report he is exerting heavy pressure on panel; Riyadh’s desire to enrich uranium as part of civilian nuclear program worries officials in Jerusalem and Washington

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens during a meeting with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 20, 2023. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens during a meeting with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the 78th United Nations General Assembly in New York City on September 20, 2023. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Saturday denied a report that he is exerting heavy pressure on members of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission not to oppose uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia, as part of a potential deal that would see the two nations normalize relations.

Channel 12 earlier aired the claim, without citing sources for it.

“The report… is incorrect,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a laconic statement.

US support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program is a key demand by Riyadh for the agreement, though security officials in both Israel and the US have expressed concern over the prospect of enrichment on Saudi soil.

Though a civilian program could be run without uranium enrichment on Saudi soil, the kingdom is reported to be demanding the enrichment take place locally.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing unnamed Israeli and US officials, 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 — meaning one that is on Saudi soil but not controlled by Riyadh.

Channel 12 said nuclear experts in Israel are stressing the need for very close American oversight over the process if it is agreed, and that there must be assurances from the US as to what the consequences would be if the Saudis later deviate from the agreements.

“On the nuclear issue, we’ve seen completely eye to eye right from the start. On what we cannot do and what it is we might be able to do,” an unnamed senior Israel official told the Journal on the view from Washington and Jerusalem on the negotiations with Riyadh.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the APEC Leader’s Informal Dialogue with Guests during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation APEC summit, November 18, 2022, in Bangkok, Thailand. (Athit Perawongmetha/Pool Photo via AP)

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.

Unnamed security officials told Kan news that even a US-run facility could prove insufficient.

“In the Middle East anything can happen and tomorrow the regime could change and then [the new rulers] would have this capability,” one official said.

In exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia is also asking the US for a major mutual defense pact, significant arms deals and Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

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.

“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.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen dismissed such concerns, saying there was no need to rush to judgment prematurely.

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

Yesh Atid head MK Yair Lapid speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on September 20, 2023.(Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Fox News Wednesday warned against a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, but said that Riyadh would have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

Netanyahu said in US TV interviews Friday that a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia was “likely” but that the current window of opportunity would be open for only the next few months.

He noted that there were “major issues” with the proposal that uranium enrichment be permitted on Saudi soil, but told CNN that if the various core components of an accord were resolved, the agreement would garner “a groundswell of support, on the right, on the left and from the international community.”

If the obstacles can be overcome, he added, “I’ll carry my coalition, and the country with it.”

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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