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Bibi Isn’t Serious About Preventing a Regional Nuclear Arms Race

Benjamin Netanyahu has long warned of the perils of a nuclear Middle East. Now he seems willing to allow Saudi nukes in exchange for normalization.

By , a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, pauses after drawing a red line on a graphic of a bomb while discussing Iran during an address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, pauses after drawing a red line on a graphic of a bomb while discussing Iran during an address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, pauses after drawing a red line on a graphic of a bomb while discussing Iran during an address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York. Mario Tama/Getty Images

Three years ago, the tormented Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found refuge from his domestic troubles with the announcement of peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain which became known as the Abraham Accords. Three years on, speculation has grown in Israel over the possibility of the most significant breakthrough in regional diplomacy in 40 years: the signing of a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia.

Three years ago, the tormented Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu found refuge from his domestic troubles with the announcement of peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain which became known as the Abraham Accords. Three years on, speculation has grown in Israel over the possibility of the most significant breakthrough in regional diplomacy in 40 years: the signing of a normalization deal with Saudi Arabia.

Netanyahu, along with many on Israel’s right, wants Israelis to believe Saudi Arabia will sign a normalization deal with Israel, like the UAE and Bahrain before it, without a second thought for Palestine. Netanyahu told Bloomberg earlier this month: “It’s sort of a checkbox …. You have to check it to say you’re doing it.” Yet on Aug. 12, the Saudis announced the appointment of Nayef al-Sudairi, their current ambassador to Jordan, as non-resident envoy and consul general to Jerusalem—a diplomatic posting generally focused on relations with the Palestinian population.

Saudi Arabia did not coordinate this move with Israel, but Majdi Khaldi, the diplomatic affairs advisor to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was clearly pleased; he described it as an “important step” that would strengthen ties between the Palestinian and Saudi peoples. (The Palestinian leadership viewed the Abraham Accords as a betrayal, and it is understandable why some Palestinians remain concerned that the Saudis may sell them down the river.)
There is increasing alarm within the security establishment over the possibility that Saudi nuclear enrichment is a price Netanyahu is willing to pay for normalization.

Meanwhile, Eli Cohen, Israel’s foreign minister, said on Aug. 13 during an interview with the 103FM radio station that Israel would not allow the opening of a Saudi mission in Jerusalem.

But this is the least of Netanyahu’s problems. The Palestinian question is merely one illustration of Netanyahu’s lack of candor with the Israeli public when it comes to addressing the costs of normalization with the Saudis. To be sure, a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia under the right circumstances would transform Israel’s strategic position by widening the circle of peace with Arab states, strengthening Israel’s ties with the Muslim world and helping to contain the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah. But the Israeli public deserves to be told the truth about what such a deal could entail.

The Saudis are expecting to receive sophisticated weapons from the United States, including F-35 fighter jets that will compromise Israel’s military advantage, and a formal defense pact with Washington as part of any future deal. More ominously, the Saudi government in Riyadh is also insisting it should be permitted to enrich uranium as part of a civil nuclear program.

This flies in the face of Israel’s long-standing attempts to prevent other countries in the region from acquiring any nuclear capability. This policy became known as the Begin Doctrine, named after then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who famously authorized the bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981.

Not so long ago, the Saudis were viewed as dangerous enemies of the state of Israel. Today’s ally can become tomorrow’s enemy, as Israel’s friendship with pre-revolutionary Iran demonstrates.


Although Saudi Arabia remains a long way from developing nuclear weapons, evidence has emerged of its nuclear cooperation with China. Saudi Arabia has never hidden its determination to acquire a nuclear weapons capability if Iran were to go nuclear. Reports from Israel are now pointing to increasing alarm within the security establishment over the possibility that Saudi nuclear enrichment is a price Netanyahu is willing to pay for a normalization deal that would secure his political legacy.

Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer suggested in a recent interview in the United States that his government could accept a Saudi civil nuclear program as part of a deal with Saudi Arabia. Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid countered that Dermer’s remarks “endangered Israeli security.”

One would think that Netanyahu, the man who has constantly warned that a nuclear-armed Iran would provoke regional nuclear proliferation, would hesitate before agreeing to such a deal with the Saudis. In 2015, for example, when opposing the nuclear deal the world powers had reached with Iran, Netanyahu warned that the deal would lead to a “nightmare” nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Even if Israel’s prime minister believes that the Saudis are responsible allies, any significant advances in Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program would likely provoke Iran to accelerate its own clandestine nuclear development and cause even more of a headache for Israel’s intelligence agencies.

Israel’s National Security Council Director Tzachi Hanegbi, an ally of Netanyahu, would have reinforced the fears of Israel’s security establishment when he tried to talk down the danger of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program. Hanegbi maintained on Israel’s Kan Bet radio station that a number of countries in the region, including the UAE, already have civilian nuclear programs.

This argument overlooks a key distinction and major security risk: The UAE has agreed to forego nuclear enrichment and reprocessing while accepting nuclear safeguards that facilitate oversight of its civilian nuclear program. The UAE has also signed on to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol, which enables the IAEA to verify the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. The Saudis have not signed on to the Additional Protocol and want to establish their own independent facilities for nuclear enrichment.

The disingenuousness of Israel’s government when it comes to the Saudis raises serious questions over the credibility and seriousness of one of Netanyahu’s most effective arguments in bringing international pressure to bear against Iran’s nuclear program: the idea that failure to prevent a nuclear Iran would open the door to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Few people today recall that a generation ago, the Saudis were viewed as an implacable enemy of Israel, just as Iran is today.

While there is no reason to believe the Biden administration would give its consent to the development of a Saudi civilian nuclear program without close U.S. oversight, it is worth remembering that the same things were said about Iran’s nuclear program when it was first developed during the 1970s under Israel’s ally, the Shah.

Few people today recall that a generation ago, the Saudis were viewed as an implacable enemy of Israel, just as Iran is today. As prime minister, Begin described Saudi Arabia in 1981 as “a desert petro-dollar state, where the darkness of the Middle Ages still exists, with the amputation of hands and heads, with unheard of corruption.” Yet that same year, Saudi Crown Prince Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud unveiled a peace initiative, known as the Fahd Plan, that implied recognition of the Jewish state; although the plan also called for Israel’s withdrawal from Arab land occupied since 1967, the removal of settlements, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

Papers recently declassified in Israel and the United States reveal that then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s administration viewed this as an opportunity to strengthen ties with the Saudis and bring them into the Middle Eastern peace process. Fear of Saudi military advances that could one day come back to haunt Israel were at the core of Israel’s effort to thwart U.S. arms sales to the Saudis. Begin wrote to Reagan to tell him Saudi Arabia was seeking “the ultimate liquidation” of the Jewish state. Alarm over the stability of the Saudi regime had been strengthened by the Mecca mosque siege just two years earlier, which had posed a direct threat to the Saudi monarchy.

One of the strongest opponents of the Saudi initiative back then was Israeli opposition lawmaker Chaim Herzog, who told then-U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig: “We are worried by the emphasis you are placing on Saudi Arabia, at Egypt’s expense. We don’t believe in the stability of the Saudi regime. We remember [what happened to] Iran.”

There is an irony in the fact that Herzog’s son, Isaac, the current president of Israel, appeared before a joint session of Congress in the U.S. Capitol in July and spoke of his hopes and prayers for peace with Saudi Arabia.

In June 1984, Israel’s then-Defense Minister Moshe Arens told his American counterpart Caspar Weinberger of his fears that Stinger missiles sold by the United States to Saudi Arabia could fall into the hands of terrorists. Weinberger countered that if the U.S. government allowed fears of terrorism to paralyze its interests, the terrorists would win. Interestingly, Netanyahu used the same argument employed by Arens earlier this summer when ruling out the supply of Israel’s Iron Dome system to Ukraine, warning that it could fall into the hands of Iran.

The concerns raised by Herzog and Arens remain valid today—and in dismissing them Netanyahu is relying on selective amnesia. The historical record has shown that in the 1980s it was convenient for Israel’s Likud government under Begin to ignore an intriguing opening offered by the Saudis and to interpret Saudi intentions in the most negative light. Even if the Fahd Plan contained far-reaching demands that no Israeli government at that time could have accepted, Begin exaggerated the threat posed by Saudi Arabia to win public support and legitimacy.

Similarly, it is convenient today for Netanyahu’s inner circle to dismiss concerns within Israel’s security establishment over the dangers of granting Riyadh rights to civil nuclear enrichment when there is so much unpredictability surrounding Saudi Arabia’s crown prince.

Events within Israel over the past year have demonstrated that Netanyahu’s personal political calculations have dictated moves that would have been unthinkable a short time ago. The Israeli prime minister’s decision to establish a coalition with far-right politicians who openly support settler terrorism against the Palestinian population and the passing of a law to weaken Israel’s Supreme Court reveal a leader who is unconstrained by and indifferent to the concerns of the legal and security institutions.

Netanyahu sidelined Israel’s security officials and ignored their warnings when he encouraged the Trump administration to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He continued to inflate the danger posed by Iran’s nuclear program even as senior Israeli representatives of the security establishment argued that the agreement’s inspection measures and restrictions brought opportunities for Israel. The collapse of the nuclear agreement has resulted in the erosion of the restrictions that had constrained Iran’s nuclear activity. The end result is that Iran is now a threshold nuclear state.

The large-scale modernization of Saudi society overseen by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman with a focus on domestic economic development appears to augur well for the political future of Saudi Arabia. But the fallout from the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 has not dissipated, reminding the world of the insecurity of the Saudi regime.

Now, Netanyahu is once again sidelining the security establishment—this time on the question of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear intentions. As a result, his legacy may yet be bound up with the nightmare of a regional nuclear arms race.

Azriel Bermant is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.

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