The State of Israel has many interests that will be expressed if and when a normalization agreement is signed with the Saudis in cooperation with the United States. But does nuclear capability in the hands of one or more countries in the region pose a danger? Netanyahu's government partners have made it clear that he has no leeway to gesture to the Palestinians, and perhaps the ball is not in the Israeli court. Israel Hayom is putting things in order.
Insisting on an entire nuclear process is a red flag
An agreement with Saudi Arabia would be welcome: there is no debate about that. The dividends Israel will receive thanks to him will also be enormous: political, economic, security and religious.
But the euphoria of having such an agreement at hand must not dampen the risks. Israel will gain a lot, but it is also putting quite a bit at stake. From a significant challenge to its qualitative military advantage (QME) in light of the advanced weapons that Saudi Arabia will acquire as part of the agreement, to the tangible fear of accelerated nuclearization of the Middle East.
The Saudi demand is for a nuclear program for civilian purposes. As part of this, it demands that the entire enrichment process take place in its field. This would allow it to easily switch to military enrichment – the main step on the way to the bomb. Saudi Arabia does not declare this, but in an interview with Fox News last week, Mohammed bin Salman said clearly that if Iran has nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will too.
Reactor in Iran. An opening for a nuclear race, photo: AFP
If Saudi Arabia wanted nuclear weapons for civilian purposes only, it could do as Iran (at the Bushehr reactor) and the UAE did: receive the nuclear fuel from another country and retrieve the irradiated fuel. Her insistence on a complete process suggests that, at the very least, she wants to keep an insurance policy for herself. But this Saudi insurance card is a clear warning sign for Israel.
Proponents of acceding to the Saudi demand raise two main arguments: first, that the Saudi facility be built by the Americans, under their responsibility and supervision, and that it will be possible to control it remotely, that is, to shut it down in times of trouble. Beyond the fact that this is difficult to implement, the practice of life teaches otherwise, namely that the Saudis will be partners, and will want to take over the project or nationalize it (as they did to the Aramco oil company).
The second argument, also raised by Minister Ron Dermer, is that if the Americans do not help the Saudis, the Chinese or the French will. It is doubtful whether this argument holds water: France will not do such a thing without American approval, and China cannot give Saudi Arabia what the United States can give it – in technology, and especially in establishing a common front against Iran.
Netanyahu: "The sanctions must be reinstated, I will do everything to prevent them from nuclearization" // Photo: Reuters
The Iranian context is dramatic, of course. Israel has a clear interest in creating a front with Saudi Arabia (and other countries in the region), and it also has an interest in deepening American involvement in the region and in the existence of a real American military threat against Tehran. An agreement with Saudi Arabia would help all of this, but the nuclear issue is no less dramatic. Given Saudi Arabia's enrichment capability, other countries – Egypt, Turkey, and others – will act to achieve a similar capability, in a way that could enable one of them (or more) to eventually obtain a bomb.
Therefore, the Israeli Fatah, if given now, could open a dangerous nuclear race, whose end could be tragic: nuclear weapons in the hands of one or more countries in an unstable region (including a constant danger to the Saudi regime). It is true that the region is still unstable today, but it is doubtful whether Israel should replace conventional instability with unconventional instability. Therefore, the solution is not enrichment in Saudi Arabia, but in preventing enrichment in Iran, and this is what Israel should aim for – in joint activity with the Americans and Saudis.
On the sidelines, it is worth mentioning that this issue is more important than politics. It is easy to imagine what Binyamin Netanyahu and his partners in another government would do if it were considering granting Saudi Arabia nuclear enrichment capability, and yet it is appropriate to hold a substantive and professional discussion, while allowing professionals to express their opinions freely and without fear. It seems that the essence of their remarks will be that an agreement with Saudi Arabia is historic and important and has tremendous potential, but not at any price, certainly not if the price is such that it endangers the security and existence of the state.
Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman, photo: AFP
Netanyahu's Obstacle: Gestures to Ramallah
If the historic move of an agreement with Saudi Arabia succeeds, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's view, and the Palestinians find themselves without the backing of the Arab world against Israel, they will be forced to abandon all their previous aspirations and move toward peace with Israel.
Thus, in effect, the agreement with Saudi Arabia, the important Arab state, will bring to an end the concept that in order for Israel to be accepted in the Middle East and the Arab world, it will first have to reach agreements with the Palestinians.
"Such a peace will contribute greatly to bringing an end to the Israeli-Arab conflict and promote real peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This is something that is within reach," Netanyahu told US President Joe Biden. According to his people, peace with the Arab world will put Palestinian aspirations into proportion and enable realistic talks on a peace that will not endanger Israel's security.
Cabinet meeting. Between Biden and Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, Photo: Amit Shabi
However, in order to reach Netanyahu's goal, in the interim stage, steps toward the Palestinians will have to be included in the agreement on the way. His government partners, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, and even his party colleagues, went out of their way minutes after his UN speech to remind him that he had little wiggle room for such gestures. Ben-Gvir sent a statement a few minutes before Shabbat to clarify that Netanyahu has no government at all if he goes for measures that include territorial concessions, Smotrich did so even before Netanyahu took off for the United States, and later in announcements from his party that included a commitment on their part to continue settlement throughout the country.
Still, the third leg of the agreement includes gestures to the Palestinians – that's already a fact. It was repeated by Biden in his meeting with Netanyahu and bin Salman in his remarks in recent weeks. The question of dosage and content is critical. Smotrich is not expected to oppose various economic gestures towards the PA (measures he has so far prevented), but measures such as freezing construction or convergence are not on the agenda, not with the current 64 seats that make up the government. Will economic and semantic gestures such as a commitment to enter a peace process be enough for Netanyahu's two-stage plan – Saudi Arabia first and the Palestinians later? Biden and bin Salman will decide.
If Israel's demands are higher than it can afford on this issue, especially in light of the current security and political reality, Netanyahu will have to choose between two options with low chances of success: dissolving his government in favor of a momentary coalition with Gantz in order to complete the process (if he does agree to enter the government – which is not on the agenda at this stage), or postponing the agreement after the US presidential elections in the expectation that a president with lower expectations of Israel regarding the Palestinians will land in the White House.
In any case, at this stage, Netanyahu will try with all his might to sell the Palestinians gestures that will not endanger his government and pray that it will be enough.
Smotrich: "Our government will not harm the settlements, but will only strengthen it"
The Defense Pact Between Washington and Riyadh: An Israeli Interest
The tripartite package deal currently being woven between the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia has at least two elements that should concern Jerusalem: Saudi Arabia's desire for its own nuclear program, and the demand for significant concessions to the Palestinians. Two other elements are desirable: a normalization agreement, of course, and a defense pact between Washington and Riyadh, if it is indeed implemented.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the normalization agreement. The dramatic decision by ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to change course, shed the cloak of conservatism and religious piety that characterized his predecessors and extend his hand to peace with Israel, ostensibly under more favorable conditions than in the past, indeed paves the way for a new Middle East, without a hint of ridicule.
Biden and Netanyahu. Triple package, photo: Reuters
In this spirit, Israel also has no reason to oppose the establishment of a defense pact between the United States and Saudi Arabia, similar to the existing alliances between Washington, Japan and South Korea. There are at least two reasons why Jerusalem should support such a move:
First, a defense pact between Riyadh and Washington, under which both sides pledge to help each other deal with foreign attacks, could chill bin Salman's eagerness to acquire a nuclear program, which he could easily convert into a military nuclear program if he feels threatened by Iran.
Second, any security partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia will keep Riyadh within the American sphere of influence and block its rapprochement with China and Russia. Such containment will undoubtedly also serve Israeli interests.
Moreover, it is possible that the birth of an American-Saudi-Israeli security axis, which will be joined by other Arab states, will also help restrain the Palestinian Authority's national and territorial claims, and replace them with interim arrangements and economic aid.
The problem is that the ball is not in the Israeli court at all. Such an agreement requires at least a two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate. Just ask Senator Chris Murphy, who says it's inconceivable that American blood would be spilled for a country with an unstable regime.
But without an umbrella of protection for the Saudis or a nuclear program, there will be no package deal, nor will morning dawn on a new Middle East.
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