Israel is discreetly working with the United States on plans to help Saudi Arabia enrich its own uranium, as part of a broader deal in which Riyadh would normalise relations with the Jewish state.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has told the country’s top nuclear and security specialists to work with US negotiators on securing the deal, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
The proposal would lead to Saudi Arabia becoming the second Middle Eastern country to openly enrich uranium after arch-rival Iran. Israel is also widely suspected of having its own nuclear weapons programme, though it remains shrouded in secrecy under a policy of deliberate ambiguity.
Secretive talks on a potential Israeli-Saudi normalisation treaty have been underway for years, but they significantly gained pace in recent months after Saudi Arabia sought a US-run nuclear programme as part of the agreement.
Any uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia would be part of a peaceful nuclear programme with a large number of safeguards, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing Israeli sources.
The proposal has already caused controversy in Israel, where opposition leaders strongly oppose nuclear proliferation in the Middle East - even for a potential future ally such as Saudi Arabia.
“A normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia is a welcome thing. But not at the cost of allowing the Saudis to develop nuclear weapons. Not at the cost of a nuclear arms race throughout the Middle East,” said Yair Lapid, the leader of the Israeli opposition, on Thursday.
It came as Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, gave an interview to Fox News in which he sent positive signals about Israeli normalisation, and warned about the dangers posed by nuclear weapons development in Iran.
When asked about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, the Saudi leader warned that “we will have to get one” if Tehran succeeds in building a bomb.
And he suggested that Saudi Arabia is edging closer “every day” to normalisation with Israel, which would be the biggest breakthrough for Middle Eastern diplomacy in a generation.
“Every day, we get closer [to an agreement],” he said, but also stressed that Israel would need to take steps towards resolving the conflict with the Palestinians as part of any deal.
Riyadh is understood to be seeking significant concessions from Israel on the Palestinian issue though Saudi officials have remained tight-lipped about what those might be.
One potential scenario could be a permanent freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank, but this would likely be politically impossible for Mr Netanyahu’s ultra-Right-wing government.