Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia for a secret meeting with its crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, Israeli media said today, but the Gulf kingdom denied the claims.
Netanyahu and his spy chief Yossi Cohen met the prince on Sunday after flying to the city of Neom where Prince Mohammed had been holding talks with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, reports claim.
If confirmed, it would mark the first known encounter between senior Israeli and Saudi officials and a major step towards the Jewish state’s acceptance in the Arab world.
While Israel has normalised relations with Bahrain and the UAE in recent months, a pact with regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia would be a far greater prize.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister today denied the reports, in line with the kingdom’s public position that it backs the Palestinian cause and refuses to co-operate with Israel.
Netanyahu neither confirmed nor denied that he had met Prince Mohammed, while one of his ministers appeared to suggest that the meeting had taken place.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu (left) flew to Saudi Arabia for a secret meeting with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (right), reports claim
Flight tracking data shows a Gulfstream IV private jet, possibly carrying Netanyahu, taking off from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday evening.
The flight travelled south along Sinai Peninsula before turning toward Neom and landing just after 6.30pm. It later followed the same route back to Israel.
Asked about the claims after the Saudi denial, Netanyahu said: ‘Are you serious? Friends, throughout my years I have never commented on such things and I don’t intend to start doing so now.’
But Yoav Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told Army Radio: ‘The very fact the meeting happened, and was outed publicly, even if half-officially right now, is a matter of great importance.’
Hebrew-language media said that Netanyahu made the trip with the head of Mossad, Yossi Cohen.
While Pompeo was travelling with a US press pool in the Middle East, he left them at Neom’s airport when he went to see the crown prince.
‘I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit’ by Pompeo, Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said today.
‘No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi.’
However, two Saudi advisers separately told the Wall Street Journal that the meeting had taken place and that the leaders had discussed Iran and the normalisation of ties.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman long has supported the Palestinian cause, but the 35-year-old prince is thought to be more open to the idea of normalising relations.
Israel has long been working under the radar to build ties with Gulf states, which have strengthened in recent years because of their shared antipathy to Iran.
The US has supported these efforts as its own relationship with Tehran deteriorated, and Donald Trump claims credit for securing the Bahrain and UAE peace deals.
Saudi Arabia has already approved the use of its airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE, a decision announced a day after MBS met Jared Kushner in Riyadh.
Bahrain’s pact with Israel also suggests at least a Saudi acquiescence to the idea, because of the island kingdom’s reliance on Riyadh.
Saudi officials have been reluctant to admit to any rapprochement with Israel in public, for fear of a backlash in the ultra-conservative kingdom.
The official Saudi position is that the moribund Israel-Palestine peace process must be completed before diplomatic relations could be established.
Netanyahu, Donald Trump and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the UAE wave from a White House balcony after signing the so-called Abraham Accords in September this year
Any steps beyond the Israel-UAE agreement – which Palestinian leaders condemned as a ‘stab in the back’ – are likely to be criticised by some regional governments.
But there have been signs of change within Saudi Arabia, with state media outlets and even TV dramas laying the groundwork for an outreach to Jewish figures.
School textbooks, once well known for denigrating Jews and other non-Muslims as ‘swines’ and ‘apes’, are undergoing revision as part of the push to change public perceptions of the country.
In February, King Salman hosted a Jerusalem-based rabbi in Riyadh for the first time in modern history. Israeli media published a photograph of Rabbi David Rosen with the monarch, hailing it as a ‘revolutionary moment’.
As well as a political alliance, there could also be financial advantages to linking up the wealthy Gulf states with the powerful Israeli economy.
Saudi attempts to attract foreign investment to fund its ambitious Vision 2030 economic diversification plan appear to be pushing the kingdom closer to Israel.
A centrepiece of Vision 2030 is NEOM, a planned $500billion megacity on the west coast where the historic meeting reportedly took place.
Analysts say the kingdom requires Israeli expertise in areas including manufacturing, biotech and cyber security for the project.