The Prime Minister's Office clarified on Sunday that Israel will not agree to any of its neighbors having a nuclear program.
The statement of clarification was made after Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer gave an interview to PBS, in which he hinted that Israel would be willing to accept a civilian nuclear program in Saudi Arabia under certain conditions.
In the interview which took place Friday, Dermer drew the distinction between pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and nuclear weapons.
“You have countries in the region that can have civilian nuclear power. That’s a different story than a nuclear weapons program,” he said.
Asked whether Israel would agree to Saudi Arabia having “civil nuclear capacity, including enrichment” in exchange for normalization, Dermer replied, “Like so many things, the devil is in the details, and we’re going to have to look at what ultimately is agreed upon.”
“And you're right. The Saudis have put that, a civilian nuclear program, which you probably are aware of, they — as the signatories of the NPT, they could go to China or they can go to France tomorrow, and they could set up — ask them to set up a civil nuclear program and to allow for domestic enrichment,” he added.
“They could do that tomorrow if they wanted to. So the question that I asked myself is, if the US is involved in this, what will that mean 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road, 30 years down the road, and what's the alternative? There are other issues the Saudis have put forward,” continued Dermer.
He also reiterated, “We’re not going to agree to any nuclear weapons program with any of our neighbors. And the question will be, when it comes to the details of an agreement, what are the safeguards? And what happens if they take another path, if they take a path with the Chinese or something else? We have to think through that whole thing.”
At the same time, he added, “Let’s not underestimate the impact that an Israeli-Saudi peace agreement could have on the region and the world. I think if you get a Saudi-Israeli peace, you're going to have several other Arab countries, and Muslim countries are going to follow. And I think it's the ultimate game-changer.”
On Sunday, opposition leader Yair Lapid criticized Dermer’s comments and said, “Minister Dermer's statement that ‘Israel will not oppose a Saudi civil nuclear program since there are other countries in the Middle East with a nuclear program’, is factually incorrect and endangers Israel's security. The only country in the Middle East that enriches uranium as part of a nuclear program is Iran.”
“It is possible to reach an agreement that strengthens our national security without Israel being a signatory to uranium enrichment in the Middle East,” added Lapid.
The Prime Minister's Office quoted Dermer’s comments in the interview in which he stated that Israel did not agree to the nuclear program of any of its neighboring countries.
"This was and remains Israel's policy," Netanyahu's office said, adding, "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought four historic peace agreements that only strengthened the security and status of the State of Israel - and will continue to do so."
Dermer’s interview took place during his visit to the US. Israeli and US officials told Barak Ravid of Axios late last week that Dermer’s visit to Washington would deal with the Biden administration's push for a mega-deal with Saudi Arabia that could include a Saudi-Israel normalization agreement.
On Thursday, Dermer met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In a statement following the meeting, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said that Blinken “reaffirmed the United States’ enduring friendship and steadfast commitment to Israel’s security.”
“Secretary Blinken and Minister Dermer discussed cooperation on regional challenges, including threats posed by Iran and its regional proxies in Lebanon and elsewhere. They also discussed ongoing efforts to further Israel’s full integration into the Middle East,” added Miller.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States and Saudi Arabia have agreed on the broad outlines of a deal for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel in exchange for concessions to the Palestinian Arabs.
According to the report, the officials expressed cautious optimism that, in the next nine to 12 months, they can straighten out the deal's finer details. But they warn that they face long odds.