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, unnamed Israeli and US officials told the Wall Street Journal.
In exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia is asking the US for a major mutual defense pact, significant arms deals, and cooperation in establishing a civilian nuclear program on Saudi soil, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.
According to the Thursday report, officials from Israel and the United States are working together on a plan that would potentially see the Gulf kingdom openly enrich uranium.
“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 newspaper on the view from Washington and Jerusalem on the negotiations with Riyadh.
The official added 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 a proposal that would see uranium enriched in Saudi Arabia, 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.”
There is some opposition in Washington to allowing Riyadh to enrich uranium — as well as in Israel, where in August, Opposition Leader Yair Lapid said “the deal at the moment endangers Israel’s security and the region. We must not give Saudi Arabia any level of uranium enrichment.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Wednesday that “every day we get closer” to his country normalizing ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process and declaring 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.
— Ali Shihabi علي الشهابي (@aliShihabi) September 20, 2023
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.
“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part… And we have a good negotiations strategy till now,” bin Salman said.
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 also 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.
In the closest Netanyahu has come yet to agreeing with the US and Saudi stance, a senior Israeli official briefing reporters on condition of anonymity after the meeting with Biden said that the prime minister had told the president that “Palestinians should be part of the process but should not have a veto over the process.”
Constrained by far-right coalition partners who oppose steps toward Palestinian statehood, Netanyahu is seeking to limit talk of concessions to economic projects to boost Palestinian livelihood and aid for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, an official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.
The PA, 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.