Israel’s Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia, met with crown prince, reports say
Israeli media reported Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia for a clandestine meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which would mark the first known encounter between senior Israeli and Saudi officials.
Hebrew-language media cited an unnamed Israeli official as saying that Netanyahu and Yossi Cohen, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, flew to the Saudi city of Neom on Sunday, where they met with the crown prince. The prince was there for talks with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo.
A Gulfstream IV private jet took off early Sunday evening from Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, according to data from website FlightRadar24.com. The flight traveled south along the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula before turning toward Neom and landing less than an hour later, according to the data. About three hours after that, the flight took off from Neom and followed the same route back to Tel Aviv.
Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan denied that a meeting between the crown prince, Netanyahu and Pompeo took place.
“I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by SecPompeo,” Prince Faisal tweeted. “No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi.”
Netanyahu, in a meeting with his Likud Party, declined to confirm a visit to Saudi Arabia. “I have not addressed such things for years, and I will not start with that now. For years I have spared no effort to strengthen Israel and expand the circle of peace,” he said.
Netanyahu has long signaled back-channel relations with Saudi Arabia, though the two nations have never officially confirmed a meeting between their leaders. Saudi Arabia appears to have given its blessing to the decisions of its Arab Gulf neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, to establish ties with Israel.
State Department deputy spokesman Cale Brown declined to comment on the reported meeting between Pompeo, Netanyahu and the crown prince. Pompeo traveled with an American press pool on his trip throughout the Middle East but left them at the Neom airport when he went into his visit with Prince Mohammed.
For Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, navigating a Biden presidency poses a challenge after going all in with Trump.
Saudi King Salman has long supported the Palestinians in their effort to secure an independent state. However, analysts and insiders suggest that his 35-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, likely is more open to the idea of normalizing relations with Israel even without major progress in the moribund peace process.
The kingdom approved the use of Saudi airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE, a decision announced the day after Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, met with Prince Mohammed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Bahrain’s announcement that it will normalize ties also suggests at least a Saudi acquiescence to the idea, as the island kingdom relies on Riyadh.
Israel has long had clandestine ties to Gulf Arab states that have strengthened in recent years as they have confronted a shared threat in Iran.
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