October 6, 2023 | Israel Hayom

Israel must rely only on itself when it comes to existential threats

Nuclear enrichment on Saudi soil, and an American-Israeli "defense treaty," as part of normalization with the Saudis, are incompatible with Israeli's National Security Strategy (NSS), especially when the agreements are likely to come at the expense of preventing Iran from dashing toward the bomb.
October 6, 2023 | Israel Hayom

Israel must rely only on itself when it comes to existential threats

Nuclear enrichment on Saudi soil, and an American-Israeli "defense treaty," as part of normalization with the Saudis, are incompatible with Israeli's National Security Strategy (NSS), especially when the agreements are likely to come at the expense of preventing Iran from dashing toward the bomb.

One of the cornerstones of Israel’s National Security Strategy, from Ze’ev Jabotinsky in 1923, to Ben Gurion in 1953 and Netanyahu in 2018, is the determination that Israel will defend itself by itself without any outside help, even from the United States. In 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added to the strategy another cornerstone clarifying that Israel must prepare itself for the scenario in which there is one or more nuclear-armed states in the region while doing everything within its power to prevent this.

There is no doubt that signing an agreement with Saudi Arabia that will include normalization is a task of the highest priority, which justifies taking many risks, so as not to miss the opportunity; but not all risks and not at any price. The reports on a potential deal, under the auspices of the Americans, raise substantial questions regarding some core issues and the required cost.

What is so problematic with the apparent nuclear concessions (in both Saudi Arabia and Iran) and how is this linked to an Israel-US defense treaty and to the certainty of this resulting in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East?

The Saudi demands that Israel can accept on the assumption that it will maintain its qualitative military edge (QME) are as follows: a defense treaty, mainly against Iran; expansion of arms deals; and a free-trade zone.

The problematic Saudi demand is the wish for a complete nuclear fuel cycle on its own soil. The “civilian excuse” is that they need these capabilities in order to exploit their natural resources: mining uranium; converting it to “yellowcake;” and then converting it to gas (UF6) and enriching it to the level required to produce fuel rods for power reactors (to generate electricity) for internal use as well as for export.

The Palestinian issue is of less interest to the Saudis, but it is being pushed very hard by the US. I think that dealing with this problem will be less problematic, as it is not an existential threat to Israel, so a solution will be incorporated into the agreements in some way. What is important is to make sure that it will not take center stage and divert attention away from the truly important and dangerous aspects of the deal.

The Saudi demands stem from the Iranian nuclear deal in 2015, which granted independent enrichment and advanced centrifuge R&D to the Iranians, on their own soil. One can understand where the Saudis are coming from without agreeing with them. The cheating Iranians received this, so why not also them? This argument will, of course, also be used by other countries such as Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, and Algeria and will start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Raising the faulty and misleading argument that if the Saudis do not receive these capabilities from the US under a controlled mechanism, they will receive them from other countries such as China, is not legitimate, as China has offered the Saudis only a controlled power reactor and not an enrichment program.

The main argument for allowing the enrichment on Saudi soil is based on Saudi Arabia’s agreeing to any oversight and management requested by the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency, which will prevent a future conversion of these capabilities to military purposes. But that is false. Teams of American and Israeli experts have reportedly found technical ways to “square the circle” but this does not change the basic cornerstone that a country cannot roll the dice when it comes to nuclear capabilities.

An examination of the “intrusive and unprecedented supervision” as part of the Iranian nuclear agreement from 2015 and the Iranian advances under its auspices shed light on the limits of supervision and any other oversight mechanism that will be invented. On the day that there will be a need to activate these measures, there is a significant risk – which cannot be ignored when it comes to nuclear capabilities and the cost of being mistaken – that political circumstances and the technical limitations that will accumulate over the years will prevent the activation of such measures.

The prospect of an Israel-US defense treaty was brought up before (most recently during the 2019 election campaign in Israel) only to be forgotten, but now it has returned to the forefront as part of the negotiations. The main disadvantage of the treaty is the fact that it is being raised, and in the message it sends: that Israel does not believe in its own strength and ability to defend itself on its own. Regardless of whether the treaty would be limited to existential threats, this in and of itself is causing most of the damage.

As part of the formulation of the treaty, the cornerstone of Israel’s NSS will certainly be breached; namely, American soldiers will not be asked to die defending Israel. The treaty will certainly include cases where the US will be called upon to defend Israel, even if only in Israel’s region and in extreme circumstances, which will be subject to interpretation. The treaty will include a provision that an attack on one of the members will be considered an attack on its allies, with everything that this implies.

Even under the defense treaty among NATO members, which is stronger than the one the US will offer Israel, the US is not obligated to defend its allies if they launch a pre-emptive attack. That means that if Israel or Saudi Arabia take out Iran’s nuclear facilities, the US will not be obligated to defend the two nations if there is retaliation.

The treaty will not prevent Iran’s continued aggressive behavior; it will send the wrong message that Israel is accepting Iran as a nuclear threshold state; and it will become a double-edged sword with the potential to severely damage Israeli deterrence and freedom of action.

The claim by the treaty supporters that Israel will not lose its freedom of action – including the ability to attack Iran, supposedly knowing that the US will come to its aid – is fundamentally mistaken and a simple logical analysis will show the opposite. The treaty will give the IDF and the civilian echelon another reason not to attack Iran – or even to strike the infrastructure and facilities that Hezbollah has built in Lebanon, including the sites used to manufacture precision-guided munitions (PGM), with support and funding from Iran.

It would be a grave mistake to link the very important agreement with Saudi Arabia to a defense treaty.  The US needs Israel now more than ever to get the Saudi agreement passed in Congress. Israel will get almost everything it wants without a treaty. Why give the US the feeling that this is the price Israel is asking?

Signing a defense treaty will almost certainly undermine the support on fundamental issues that the US has been giving to Israel for years, under the reasoning that the treaty makes them redundant or that it is possible to reduce or weaken their importance. Why would Israel need a comprehensive and longer-term Memorandum of Understanding? Why would an expanded Qualitative Military Edge be required? There would be no need for large-scale pre-positioning of American systems and for expanding cooperation in R&D and technology. Under the alliance, there is a real risk that the prevailing notion would be as such: The US will provide Israel with a full defense umbrella but every other form of support would no longer be necessary.

The alliance will cause the US to exert pressure to prevent escalations and clashes that could require US intervention. Even if it is written that Israel will not need to consult or receive approval, the reality will be different and the freedom of action will have been lost.

Those in favor of the treaty base their arguments mainly on the claim that our Big Sister will stand by Israel and that harming Israel is tantamount to attacking the US, and therefore deterrence and freedom of action will be strengthened. According to them, the treaty will motivate the US to prevent escalation, and therefore Israel will receive everything it needs to prevent clashes that would obligate the US to intervene.

The disadvantages of the treaty are much greater than the advantages, and it is better not to push toward signing it, especially not as the “currency” for supporting the US-Saudi deal in Congress.

There is no doubt that reaching an agreement between Israel and the Saudis is very important and Israel should take some risks in order to secure such a deal, but there is one way to promote a deal with normalization, cancel Riyadh’s request for an independent fuel cycle and cancel the need for a defense treaty while ensuring that the first priority remains preventing an Iranian nuclear program. The US must insist upon the activation of a snap-back mechanism that will restore all UN Security Council sanctions, including an absolute ban on uranium enrichment in Iran.  Skeptics will claim that this is an unrealistic demand, perhaps, but an American demand is sufficient to pull the rug from under the Saudi nuclear demands and allow progress towards a three-way US-Saudi-Israel deal, which will create an opening for joint action against the Iranian nuclear program.

Brigadier General (res.) Jacob Nagel is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a professor at the Technion. He previously served as Prime Minister Netanyahu’s national security advisor and the head of Israel National Security Council (acting).


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