Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia for a clandestine meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, reports have said, which would mark the first known encounter between senior Israeli and Saudi officials.
The reported meeting was the latest move by the Trump administration to promote normalised ties between Israel and the broader Arab world and reflected the shared concern of all three nations about Iran.
Israeli news site Walla, followed quickly by other Hebrew-language media, cited an unnamed Israeli official as saying that Mr Netanyahu and Yossi Cohen, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, flew on Sunday night to the Saudi city of Neom, where they met the crown prince, who was there for talks with visiting US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
People traveling with Mr Pompeo declined to comment, and Mr Netanyahu, in a meeting with his Likud Party, also declined to confirm the visit.
“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.
Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan denied on Twitter that the meeting took place.
“No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi,” he wrote.
Flight-tracking website FlightRadar24.com showed a Gulfstream IV private jet took off from Tel Aviv on Sunday night and flew south along the edge of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula before turning toward Neom and landing. The flight took off from Neom more than three hours later and followed the same route back to Tel Aviv.
Mr Pompeo, who was in Israel last week, travelled with a small group of American reporters on his trip throughout the Middle East, but left them at Neom airport when he went into his visit with the crown prince.
While Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates have reached deals under the Trump administration to normalise ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia has remained out of reach.
The Trump administration, as well as Mr Netanyahu, would love to add the Saudis to that list before it leaves office in January. Israel’s Channel 12 TV, citing an anonymous diplomatic official, said the Saudis told Mr Netanyahu and Mr Pompeo that they are not ready to normalise ties with Israel.
In Sudan, a military official said an Israeli delegation was in the country on Monday to discuss the normalisation efforts.
King Salman has long supported the Palestinians in their effort to secure an independent state as a condition for recognizing Israel, but analysts and insiders suggest his 35-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is likely to be more open to the idea of normalising relations without major progress in the peace process.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have a shared interest in countering arch rival Iran, and they have welcomed the Trump administration’s pressure campaign on the Iranians, which included withdrawing from an international nuclear deal and imposing tough economic sanctions on the Tehran government.
The reported meeting puts even more pressure on Iran ahead of an incoming Biden administration that has signalled a potential willingness to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.
In an apparent message to president-elect Joe Biden, Mr Netanyahu said in a speech on Sunday evening, shortly before the reported trip to Saudi Arabia: “We must not return to the previous nuclear deal.”
He also praised “trailblazing Arab leaders who understand the benefits of peace” and predicted “we will see other states that widen the circle of peace”.
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