Israeli PM meets with Saudi crown prince

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Benjamin Netanyahu visits Mohammed bin Salman
Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu visits Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly flown to Saudi Arabia for a clandestine meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

If confirmed, this would mark the first known encounter between senior Israeli and Saudi officials.

Hebrew-language media cited an unnamed Israeli official as saying that Mr 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 US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.

People traveling with Mr Pompeo declined comment. Mr Netanyahu, in a meeting with his Likud Party, also declined to explicitly confirm the visit.

He said: “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.”

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan later denied a meeting between the three 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,” he tweeted.

“No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi.”

The tweet did not elaborate.

US state department deputy spokesman Cale Brown declined to comment when asked about Mr Netanyahu’s participation in the meeting.

A Gulfstream IV private jet took off just after 5.40pm GMT from Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, according to data from website FlightRadar24.com.

The flight travelled south along the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula before turning toward Neom and landing just after 6.30pm GMT, according to the data.

The flight took off from Neom around 9.50pm GMT and followed the same route back to Tel Aviv.

Mr Pompeo travelled 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 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 so far has remained out of reach.

King Salman long has supported the Palestinians in their effort to secure an independent state.

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 the international nuclear deal with Iran 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.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Israeli think tank the Institute for National Security Studies, said: “I think there’s a message to Iran. Look, there’s a front against you. There’s two months to go to the new administration. Beware. We are on the same page.”

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.”

In the same speech, Mr Netanyahu also praised “trailblazing Arab leaders who understand the benefits of peace”.

He also predicted that: “We will see other states that widen the circle of peace.”

In another possible reference to the Saudi meeting, a Netanyahu aide, Topaz Luk, accused defence minister Benny Gantz of “playing politics at the same time that the prime minister is making peace”.

Mr Gantz launched an investigation on Sunday into Israel’s purchase of German submarines — a scandal that has turned several close Netanyahu confidants into criminal suspects. Mr Netanyahu himself is not a suspect.

The reported visit on Sunday night to Neom, still a largely undeveloped desert region alongside the north end of the Red Sea, also reflected Prince Mohammed’s ambitions.

The prince hopes to develop the region into a futuristic, skyline-studded Saudi version of Dubai which will create jobs and cement a future beyond its vast crude oil reserves.

It also would reframe a rule so far coloured by the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdom’s grinding war in Yemen.

It was unclear where the three men met, though the Saudi royal family has mansions along the Red Sea, with a major golf course.

Mr Netanyahu has long signalled back-channel relations with the Saudis, though the nations have never officially confirmed a meeting between their leaders. But Saudi Arabia appears to have given its blessing to the decisions of its Gulf neighbours, the UAE and Bahrain, to establish ties with Israel.

The kingdom approved the use of Saudi airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE, a decision announced the day after Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, met with Prince Mohammed in Riyadh.

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