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Israel’s opposition leader has hit out at the idea of allowing Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium in the kingdom, warning such a development would pose a threat to the Jewish state’s security.
Saudi Arabia has been seeking US help to develop a civilian nuclear programme as part of US-brokered talks on normalising relations between Riyadh and Israel in a complex deal with the potential to reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East.
Yair Lapid, head of Israel’s largest opposition group, Yesh Atid, on Thursday said the prospect of Israel establishing full relations with Saudi Arabia, a leader of the Arab world, was a “welcome thing”. But he also said a deal should not come at the cost of triggering “a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East”.
“Strong democracies do not sacrifice their security interests for politics. It is dangerous and irresponsible,” Lapid said in a video posted on the social media platform X. “Israel must not agree to any type of uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia.”
Lapid’s comments follow a report in the Wall Street Journal that US and Israeli officials were discussing the establishment of a US-run uranium-enrichment programme in Saudi Arabia, and an interview given by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in which he said that if Iran managed to develop a nuclear weapon, the kingdom would need to follow suit.
“If they get one, we have to get one,” he told Fox News’ Special Report in an interview aired on Wednesday.
Israel is currently the only Middle Eastern state that has nuclear weapons, but it never confirms or publicly discusses its arsenal, with an official policy of ambiguity.
Under the complex — and highly delicate — talks on a possible normalisation deal, the US would provide Riyadh with security guarantees and support for a civilian nuclear programme. In return, Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s two holiest sites, would normalise relations with Israel, while also demanding concessions from Israel to the Palestinians.
Allowing Saudi Arabia to develop a civil nuclear programme is one of the thorniest aspects of the talks. The US and Israel have long been wary of nuclear co-operation that would allow the kingdom to enrich uranium on its own soil because it could eventually allow for the production of a nuclear weapon. The US would prefer to see the country purchase nuclear fuel for a reactor on the world market.
But US officials have in recent weeks expressed openness to Saudi Arabia’s demands for civil nuclear co-operation. They have also discussed with Israeli officials ways they could get comfortable with possible Saudi uranium enrichment.
While some in Israel’s security establishment have had reservations about giving the green light to a US-backed Saudi nuclear programme, others, such as strategic affairs minister Ron Dermer, one of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s closest confidants, have argued Saudi Arabia has other options if the US said no.
“They could go to China, or they can go to France tomorrow, and . . . ask them to set up a civil nuclear programme and allow domestic enrichment,” Dermer said in an interview with US public broadcaster PBS last month.
Analysts said it might also be easier for Netanyahu, who heads the most far-right government in Israel’s history, to accede to Saudi Arabia’s nuclear demands rather than do more to acknowledge Palestinians’ aspiration for an independent state.
“Netanyahu would much rather give nuclear concessions to the Saudis than political concessions to the Palestinians,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think-tank, who has discussed the normalisation effort with Saudi and Israeli officials.
Any civil nuclear co-operation between the US and another country would require what is known as a 123 agreement, which must pass through the US Congress. That process could be complicated by the Crown Prince’s suggestion that Saudi Arabia would seek a nuclear weapon if Iran acquired one.
Source: Financial Times