Saudi–Israeli normalisation may inflame another regional nuclear dispute
    Transformational peace or long-term conflict?

    ANALYTICS  02 October 2023 - 18:00

    Fuad Shahbazov

    On September 29, the Saudi Arabian government issued a statement that it will not hold up a peace deal even if Israel does not offer major concessions to Palestinians in their bid for statehood. The Palestinians could get some Israeli restrictions eased, but such moves would fall short of their aspirations for a state. As with other Arab-Israeli deals forged over the decades, the Palestinian core demand for statehood would take a back seat, the three regional sources familiar with the talks said.

    However, in its earlier statements, the Saudi Kingdom reiterated that the normalisation with Israel depends on a breakthrough with the Palestinians. Left mostly unsaid is that a full peace with Israel also depends on a breakthrough with Iran, above and beyond the China-brokered Iran-Saudi rapprochement achieved earlier this year.

    Among the top supporters of the potential peace deal is the US, Saudi Arabia's and Israel's leading security partner. The Biden administration is keen to ink a new agreement between Tel Aviv and Riyadh before the upcoming presidential elections in the US, though the recent diplomatic rifts with Riyadh suggest that it will be an arduous process.

    The Americans are long thought to have been pushing for a landmark pact to normalise Israel-Saudi ties. Moreover, given the scope for a historic realignment of ties in the Middle East, there is continuing speculation over the framework for any deal, with American shuttle diplomacy picking up again after trips by officials to Riyadh, Amman and Tel Aviv throughout 2023.

    For the US, this would be seen as a major foreign policy win, advancing regional integration by building on the Abraham Accords with the most sought-after player, reinjecting momentum, or minimally focus, on a political horizon for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all while creating opportunity to push back on China's rising influence in the region. For Israel's part, normalisation with the Saudis would bring untapped economic benefits and fundamentally reshape its place in the region and potentially broader Islamic world.

    Amid the ongoing diplomatic normalisation talks, Riyadh seeks more concessions from Israel in exchange for dropping demands and concerns regarding the Palestinian issue. Saudi Arabia has long been keen to develop its peaceful nuclear program, seeking Israel's support and guarantees that it will not interfere.

    Therefore, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been exerting heavy pressure on Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, especially its director, retired Brig. Gen. Moshe Edri, to support the formulated plan between Washington and Riyadh. Also, Netanyahu has tasked Edri and Mossad director David Barnea with discussing its possible approval with their American counterparts.

    Riyadh’s bid for nuclear power, including its own uranium enrichment, is not just about developing a new alternative energy source. Iran is at the core of the Saudi calculus. If Iran gets the bomb, then Saudi Arabia would have to get one. Consequently, despite Riyadh-Tehran normalisation a few months ago, the general concerns and questions between the two regional rivals are yet to be adequately addressed.

    Iran's missile capabilities are still critical and pose a real threat to the regional monarchies in the Gulf. Iran is now embracing the rapprochement with Saudi Arabia in its media and policy statements, but the kingdom wants more action to complement the words.

    Nevertheless, many analysts argue that enriching uranium for civil nuclear power reactors provides the know-how and means to convert the project into a military nuclear program. Considering the benefits of the normalisation with Saudi Arabia, the Israeli government is ready to turn a blind eye to Riyadh’s uranium enrichment. Previously, PM Netanyahu would be the first to oppose such an agreement, referring to the possibility of converting it to a military nuclear program.

    Another sign of the vital importance of the normalisation with Riyadh for Israel is the main opposition forces led by Bennie Gantz's support to Netanyahu's decision to move forward with the nuclear deal option with Saudi Arabia. Moreover, non-governmental think tanks in Israel issued surprise papers expressing support for such an alliance, reversing previous objections to any deal tying Israel’s hands by requiring advance notice of its plans.

    The Biden administration is going big in the Middle East with Saudi-Israel normalisation and some type of nuclear deal with Iran. After a scratchy start in its relations with Saudi Arabia, US President Joe Biden came to realise that going big — such as Israel-Saudi normalisation, support for a two-state solution, ending the war in Yemen, and deterring Iran — requires a close partnership with the kingdom; there's no workaround.

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