US warns Israel not to ‘misread situation’ on potential for Saudi deal — report

Blinken reportedly tells minister real concessions to Palestinians will be necessary; Riyadh said weighing Chinese bid for nuclear plant in effort to pressure Washington

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

US officials stressed to Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer during a recent visit that Israel will have to make far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians to secure a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, according to a Friday report.

The Axios report, which cited current and former US officials, said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Dermer that Israel is “misreading the situation” if it does not believe significant gestures to the Palestinians are necessary to assuage the Saudis, who he said will need to demonstrate tangible results to other Arab and Muslim countries if they are to make a deal with Israel.

The current hardline Israeli government is expected to resist any such concessions, though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views normalization with Riyadh as a key foreign policy goal.

The report further said that US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told Dermer that US President Joe Briden wants extensive support for a Saudi agreement from congressional Democrats, and Israeli gestures toward the Palestinians could help ensure this.

Dermer offered little in terms of gestures for the Palestinians during the meetings, saying Israel’s concession is its agreement to Saudi Arabia’s development of a civilian nuclear program, according to the report.

Dermer visited Washington last week, where he met with senior Biden administration officials to discuss the Saudi deal and unfulfilled Israeli pledges to boost the Palestinian Authority.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Saudi Arabia was entertaining a Chinese offer to construct a nuclear plant on its territory, in an effort to press the Biden administration to agree to more lenient nonproliferation requirements in the US bid to establish a civilian nuclear program in the kingdom.

In this image taken from footage by Saudi State TV, Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, listens to the Chinese national anthem next to Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 8, 2022. (Saudi Press Agency via AP)

Citing Saudi officials, the paper said state-owned China National Nuclear Corp. submitted a bid to construct a nuclear plant near Saudi Arabia’s borders with Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, with powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman willing to soon take up the Chinese offer if negotiations with the United States fall through.

Riyadh’s demand for a green light from Washington to develop a nuclear program is part of the broader US-Saudi talks that could see Israel and Saudi Arabia normalize diplomatic ties. In exchange for establishing relations with the Jewish state, the Saudis are also believed to be seeking access to advanced American defense technology and a defense alliance with the US.

The Saudi officials quoted by the newspaper said they would prefer to have South Korea’s Korea Electric Power Corp build the atomic reactors while incorporating American expertise, but are resistant to the proliferation restrictions typically required by the US, such as banning uranium enrichment — a key component of nuclear weapons programs.

China, however, is not expected to seek the same kind of nonproliferation restrictions, with the Saudi officials acknowledging their consideration of the Chinese bid is meant to get the Biden administration to offer less strict nonproliferation terms. They also said the Chinese offer was 20 percent cheaper, but that the Korean firm’s reactors and US management are the best available.

While Riyadh and Beijing have moved closer diplomatically, with China brokering a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year, the officials stressed they want the kingdom to remain under US security protection and noted Riyadh remains the biggest purchaser of American arms.

The report said US officials were not concerned by the Saudi feelers to China for nuclear assistance but reiterated they want Saudi Arabia to curb military cooperation with China, America’s chief geopolitical rival.

Two buildings, located near Saudi Arabia’s Solar Village research institute, that some analysts believe could be nuclear facilities. (Google Earth screen grab)

For its side of the bargain, 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.

The Wall Street Journal story came a week after Dermer, a close confidant of Netanyahu, suggested Israel may not oppose uranium enrichment by Saudi Arabia as part of a normalization pact. Netanyahu’s office later issued a statement downplaying the remark, 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.

“You have countries in the region that can have civilian nuclear power. That’s a different story than a nuclear weapons program,” Dermer said in an interview with PBS.

Asked whether Israel would agree to Saudi Arabia having “civil nuclear capacity, including enrichment” in exchange for normalization, Dermer 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.

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