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Israel sweating over the price of normalisation with Saudi Arabia

September 13, 2023 at 1:28 pm

Israel’s new Mossad chief Tamir Pardo poses for photographs out side his house in Nirit, Israel [Uriel Sinai/Getty Images]

Strong opposition is mounting within Israel’s defence establishment over Saudi aspirations to domestically enrich uranium. Critics warn Riyadh’s nuclear ambitions could spark a destabilising arms race in the Middle East.

Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo publicly voiced concerns this week, stating that Saudi enrichment capabilities would transform the region’s balance of power. Israel currently maintains a commanding qualitative military edge over other states, owing largely to its stock of nuclear weapons and advanced military hardware supplied by the US.

Israeli officials have expressed concern at the loss of a qualitative edge in the region if Saudi Arabia is permitted to develop nuclear weapons as part of a three-way deal between Riyadh, Washington and Tel Aviv. Under the proposed deal, Saudi Arabia will be granted security guarantees and permission to enrich uranium in exchange for normalising ties with Israel.

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Despite opposition to Riyadh’s ambition, Israel’s leverage to block the Gulf state’s nuclear advances is limited. The decision ultimately lies with the Biden administration and its eagerness to score a foreign policy achievement, even if it means bowing to Muhammed Bin Salman’s demands. The Saudi crown prince is determined to exact the highest price from the US for normalising ties with Israel.

Israeli commentators say that from the perspective of the apartheid state, the only acceptable path is having enrichment performed under direct US supervision, similar to the UAE’s civilian reactors. But the headstrong crown prince has insisted on domestic enrichment capacities like Iran.

If the Saudis enrich uranium at home, the nuclear dominoes may fall across the Middle East. Regional states like Egypt, Turkiye and Algeria will inevitably demand similar nuclear privileges. Israel could eventually face pressure to relinquish its own undeclared nuclear weapons in exchange for a nuclear-free Middle East.

Analysts have also commented that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia has emerged as a strategic nightmare for Israeli planners. But Israel alone cannot put the nuclear genie back in the bottle as nuclear ambitions spread across the Middle East.

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