JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret trip to Saudi Arabia on Sunday, according to a Middle Eastern intelligence official, a watershed visit in the historically hostile relations between the two countries.
The meeting was initially reported by Israeli media and confirmed by the intelligence official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information.
“Only a small circle knew about the meeting,” the official said. “It was kept in a very small circle in Israel. Neither the foreign minister nor the defense minister knew about this.”
According to the Israeli publication Ynet, Netanyahu spent a few hours late Sunday in the Saudi coastal city of Neom, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Netanyahu reportedly traveled with Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, a key figure in emerging efforts to broker diplomatic relations with the kingdom.
Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, the Saudi foreign minister, denied that the meeting took place, maintaining that “the only officials present were American and Saudi” during the recent visit by Pompeo.
Netanyahu’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the visit.
The brief trip comes amid a flurry of diplomatic activity between Israel and its Arab neighbors and as tensions with Iran, an adversary of both Israel and Saudi Arabia, are on the rise.
Although clandestine high-level meetings between Israeli and Arab officials are not uncommon, a visit by Netanyahu to Saudi Arabia would represent a significant development. Saudi Arabia is one of the most influential countries in the Arab world and, because of its unique role as home to two of Islam’s holiest sites, has been far more conservative than its neighbors about cultivating ties with Israel.
“This is a precedent now, in that it’s very public,” said Shaul Yanai, a Middle East and Gulf States expert at Hebrew University. “Netanyahu is an experienced enough diplomat in order not to leak without first getting the OK. They wanted that it happen.”
The Middle Eastern intelligence official said the meeting was meant to send a message to the incoming Biden administration that conditions for better relations between the two countries were ripe.
“On one hand to say, there is a big chance and opportunity for peace here, so don’t break it,” the official said. “But another message is also that if the new administration — as announced — is getting back into negotiations with Iran, they have to involve the states in the region more and not leave out their fears and worries.”
In August, Israel and the United Arab Emirates reached an agreement to establish formal relations and open trade, security and tourism ties. Bahrain and Sudan followed suit, marking a collapse of long-standing Arab unity that rejected such negotiations with Israel as long as the country continued to occupy the West Bank. Palestinian leaders have condemned the Arab deals as a betrayal.
But in recent weeks, speculation has risen in Israel that Riyadh and Jerusalem are close to a similar agreement. Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled media has notably softened its bellicose tone toward Israel and the concept of normal relations in recent months. Cohen reportedly told associates in October that the Saudis were ready to decide on an arrangement with Israel once the U.S. presidential election was concluded.
Israel has long maintained semi-secret security contacts with Saudi Arabia, as it had with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
The Saudi foreign minister signaled Saturday during the Group of 20 Summit in Riyadh that his country was open to forging official ties with Israel, but not unconditionally.
Saudi Arabia has “supported normalization with Israel for a long time, but one very important thing must happen first: a permanent and full peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians,” Prince Faisal said in an interview with Reuters.
Mohammed is close to President Donald Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and adviser. With Trump’s reelection defeat, anxiety has risen in Saudi Arabia and Israel that President-elect Joe Biden will reverse Trump’s hard-line policies against Iran and seek to revive Washington’s participation in the Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama administration and still recognized by European and other allies.
“I think the main thing is that both sides want to get ready for [Biden’s inauguration in] January and to project and align an Israeli-Arab front that is ready for engagement with Iran,” said Shimrit Meir, a Middle East analyst for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronot.
The Saudi foreign minister said Saturday that Riyadh was ready to cooperate with the incoming administration. But speculation that the Trump administration was preparing for military action against Iran nuclear capacities in its waning days has been rising. Some considered Netanyahu’s apparent visit to the kingdom and the presence of Pompeo as further evidence that a strike was possible.
Palestinian officials made no immediate comment. But an Arab-Israeli member of the Knesset accused all three governments of seeking to foment conflict in the region.
“Netanyahu, Trump and [bin] Salman are trying to set fire to the area and put sticks in the wheels of a return to the nuclear deal,” tweeted Aida Touma-Sliman, a member of the Arab Hadash Party. “They could degenerate the entire region into escalation and war.”
Pompeo, on what may be his final official trip through the Middle East as secretary of state, was in Saudi Arabia following a three-day visit to Israel in which he sought to cement Trump’s legacy of tilting U.S. policy toward one favored by Netanyahu’s government — much like Trump’s stance on Iran.
Secrecy surrounded Netanyahu’s movements Sunday. A scheduled meeting of the government’s cabinet-level coronavirus response committee was canceled. Flight tracking sites showed an unusual route of a plane flying directly from Tel Aviv to Neom on Sunday evening and returning early Monday, according to The Associated Press.
Other Israeli officials, including Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz, were unaware of Netanyahu’s trip in advance, Ynet reported.
Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry declined to comment.
The lack of official denials was itself a notable change from the reaction to previous reports of clandestine meetings even in neutral countries. Those reports were kept under wraps or hotly denied to avoid embarrassing the Saudis.
The quiet response this time indicates that the tenor of relations has shifted significantly, even if a formal declaration of normal relations is not imminent.
“I think that this is already happening,” Meir said. “If the Israelis are saying, ‘We met with the Saudi crown prince’ and he’s not denying it, that’s normalization. You can call it whatever you want, but that’s normalization.”
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Mekhennet reported from Washington.