Israel wooing future Arab allies with nuclear embrace

Analysis: Mideast experts say speech by Israeli atomic chief meant to emphasize value of friendship with Israel, both in terms of technological advances and as counterweight to increasingly menacing Iran

The Media Line|
With declining prospects of the United States reviving the moribund agreement to regulate Iran’s nuclear aspirations, the head of Israel’s atomic agency said this week that Jerusalem was contemplating sharing nuclear know-how with Arab states with whom it has a peace agreement.
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  • According to Mideast experts, the speech was meant to impress the value of friendship with Israel both on Arab states with whom it has peace treaties and those contemplating such a step. It also served as a warning to regional foe Iran, whose own nuclear ambitions Israel vows to thwart.
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    Israeli Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai and Emirati Minister of Economy Abdulla bin Touq Al-Marri, sign a UAE-Israel free trade agreement
    Israeli Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai and Emirati Minister of Economy Abdulla bin Touq Al-Marri, sign a UAE-Israel free trade agreement
    Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai and Emirati Minister of Economy Abdulla bin Touq Al-Marri, sign a UAE-Israel free trade agreement
    (Photo: The Media Line)
    “We are hopeful that the new spirit in our region, as demonstrated in the Abraham Accords, will mark a path forward for meaningful direct dialogue within our region, including in the nuclear fora,” Israel Atomic Energy Commission Director-General Moshe Edri told the 66th General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna on Wednesday.
    “Israel’s state-of-the-art technology provides us with significant levels of knowledge and capabilities, which we are ready to share with others, of course under the IAEA umbrella,” he said.
    Edri made direct reference to Iran, whose nuclear ambitions have caused trepidation among its neighbors.
    “One country is the leading factor in the instability of the region,” Edri told the Vienna conference.
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    משה אדרי
    משה אדרי
    Moshe Edri
    (Photo: The Defense Ministry)
    “It is now clear that Iran conducted a military nuclear program, gaining technology and knowledge, aimed to produce elements for a nuclear weapon device,” he said. “Iran obtaining nuclear weapons is not an option that Israel nor the world can tolerate.”
    Omar Rahman, a Fellow at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs specializing in regional foreign policy, security, and conflict, said that the announcement by Edri likely has a “dual purpose.”
    “The first is to offer an additional reward for those who have taken the step in Israel’s direction – with their publics taking note – and incentive to those who are on the fence about doing so in the future,” he says.
    “Secondly, this may be a warning to Iran that Israel is willing to strengthen the capabilities of allies in the region in order to contain Tehran’s ambitions.”
    It has been exactly two years since Israel signed the Abraham Accords normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, followed soon after by similar treaties with Morocco and Sudan.
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    (L-R) Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords
    (L-R) Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords
    Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords
    (Photo: Getty Images)
    And while Rahman says that “sharing advanced technology was always a dimension of the normalizing agreements,” he does not see “the sharing of nuclear technology as a prime motivation for normalization.”
    However, he adds, “it certainly could add to the incentive structure involved if Israel does indeed share that technology with its new partners in the region.”
    This position is shared by Dr. Yonatan Freeman, an international relations expert at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
    “This announcement isn’t just about those who are with [Israel]; this announcement is about those who may be with [it] in the future,” Freeman explained.
    He posits that the comments by Edri were a case of Israel saying to potential allies: “Look at what you can get; look at what we’re offering. It isn’t just about how we grow oranges, it’s how we also do other things that you maybe never thought were possible to do.”
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    דוקטור יונתן פרימן
    דוקטור יונתן פרימן
    Dr. Yonatan Freeman
    (Photo: Jenny Pepperman)
    Freeman also argues that the current war in Ukraine and the difficulties that has caused in energy supplies mean that “nuclear technology and nuclear power could be something that more and more countries will look to.”
    As such, he says, “as the Arab states get closer to Israel, [they] can maybe go about joint research projects when it comes to nuclear technology.”
    In addition, Rahman suggests, Israel could be using Edri’s declaration to put pressure on the international community as U.S. President Joe Biden seeks to revive the Iran nuclear deal that former president Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 – a move that Jerusalem opposes.
    “There may be a more subtle warning to the rest of the world that Israel is capable of advancing nuclear proliferation if it does not get what it wants in the negotiations over the JCPOA, perhaps hoping the international community seeks to placate Israel further,” Rahman says.
    Israel has long maintained a deliberate policy of ambiguity on its nuclear capabilities, stating that it “will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.”
    While it has no nuclear power plants, Israel does have an atomic installation – the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center – just outside of the desert city of Dimona. Built with French assistance in the late 1950s and early 1960s, general international consensus holds that it is used for the production of an arsenal of strategic weapons that the country has consistently neither admitted to nor denied having.
    Freeman proposes that Jerusalem is also using the threat posed by Iran to its neighbors as a motivation for joining a growing alliance with Israel.
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    The Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran in December 2020
    The Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran in December 2020
    The Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran in December 2020
    (Photo: AFP)
    “This could also be a way of saying to everyone: ‘Listen, even if Iran moves ahead with its nuclear program and you feel left behind … Israel will be open to cooperate with you.’”
    Furthermore, he says this could lead to a point at which regional states are forced to choose a side, “because if they don’t, Israel might also feel that they might want to cooperate with actors in the world that may not be favorable to Israel.”
    Freeman qualifies that this is unlikely to happen with most regional nations, who are more likely to embrace Israel as a guardian against an increasingly menacing Islamic Republic.
    “Generally speaking, the more Iran is getting closer to increased hostility with Israel, the more it’s causing a lot of these Arab states to get closer to Israel in response,” he says. “I think that if you look – historically and also in modern times – at which country not only has been historically targeted by Iran over the decades but also has been fighting Iran on all fronts successfully … it’s Israel.
    “So I think part of what’s happening is the more Iran threatens, the more Israel is seen as a strategic ally that they can use and they can cooperate with against Iranian threats.”

    The story is written by Sara Miller and reprinted with permission from the Media Line
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