BEIRUT — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel flew to Saudi Arabia for a covert meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, Israeli news media reported Monday.
Hours after those reports, attributed to an unidentified Israeli official, the Saudi foreign minister publicly denied that such a meeting had taken place.
The confusing turn of events came as Israel and the Trump administration have promoted the idea that a diplomatic opening between Saudi Arabia and Israel is only a matter of time, while the Saudis have continued to insist that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal must come first.
The meeting, if confirmed, would be the first known to have taken place between high-level Israeli and Saudi leaders.
But the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, denied that any meeting with Netanyahu had taken place, insisting that Prince Mohammed had met only with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was completing a seven-nation farewell tour.
“There was no meeting,” Prince Faisal wrote in a text message when asked about Netanyahu.
Prince Faisal said that he had accompanied Pompeo during his visit and that “Saudi and American officials were the only ones present throughout.”
Reports of the visit followed agreements by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan to establish formal relations with Israel, moves that the Trump administration pushed to crack a boycott of Israel by most Arab states in solidarity with the Palestinians.
A similar agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel would be much more significant because of the kingdom’s size, wealth and standing in the Muslim world as the protector of Islamic holy sites. But there was no indication that such a move was imminent, and even covert meetings between Israeli and Saudi officials could set off anger among parts of the Saudi public.
Israeli news outlets first reported the meeting, and the education minister, Yoav Galant, discussed it in a radio interview Monday afternoon, although it was unclear whether he had direct knowledge of the meeting or was responding to the news reports.
“The fact that the meeting took place and was made public — even if it was in only a semiofficial way — is something of great importance,” he said.
“This is something our ancestors dreamed about,” Galant added, highlighting what he called the “warm acceptance of Israel by the Sunni world.”
Israeli news outlets cited unidentified officials saying that the prime minister had flown with Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad spy agency, to Neom, a futuristic city that Prince Mohammed is planning near the Red Sea coast. The reports did not detail the content of the meeting but did note that the leaders discussed Iran, which both countries consider a major threat, in addition to the possible normalization of diplomatic relations.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have no formal diplomatic relations, and Prince Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said as recently as Saturday that the kingdom had long supported normalization but only after an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The Saudis’ Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 offered Israel full normalization with the Arab world after the Palestinians achieved statehood.
But the kingdom’s tone when speaking about Israel has shifted in recent years, and rapidly in recent months.
Prince Mohammed, 35, a son of the Saudi monarch and the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has said that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to their land and that Israel has overlapping economic and security interests with Arab states, specifically over their shared animosity toward Iran.
The Saudi news media has begun publishing articles about Israeli culture and politics, and last month a Saudi satellite channel aired extensive interviews with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington, who harshly criticized the Palestinian leadership.
Saudi Arabia played a quiet but instrumental role in aiding the Trump administration’s effort to broker the diplomatic openings between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, according to a senior Israeli official. Last month, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to commercial flights to and from Israel, saying it had done so at the request of the Emirates. Most Arab states block such overflights as part of their boycott of the Jewish state.
In recent weeks, some Israeli and U.S. officials have perceived a shift within the Saudi royal court that could make it possible to move ahead with a normalization accord, according to the Israeli official, because of the absence of significant protests in the Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan after their agreements with Israel.
A key question for the Saudis is how pushing ahead with normalization in the waning days of the Trump administration would affect their standing in Washington and relationship with the incoming Biden administration.
President-elect Joe Biden took a tough line on Saudi Arabia during the campaign, vowing to stop U.S. support for the Saudi military in Yemen, impose penalties for human rights violations and treat the Saudis like “the pariah that they are.”
He has not detailed his approach to the kingdom since winning the election, but analysts have said that he will most likely have to work with the kingdom on issues including oil price stability and efforts to contain Iran. Biden is likely to welcome further Saudi-Israeli rapprochement, although it remains unclear whether his administration will push for it in the same way that President Donald Trump has or seek to use the possibility as leverage in efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Opening diplomatic ties with Israel could also help Prince Mohammed rehabilitate his reputation in Washington, dampening criticisms of the Saudi war in Yemen, crackdowns on activists and the killing of the dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018.
For Netanyahu, headlines about a possible diplomatic breakthrough, breathlessly covered by the Israeli media, provided a welcome distraction from an unwelcome story: the formation by the defense minister, Benny Gantz, a Netanyahu rival, of a government commission of inquiry into Netanyahu’s multibillion-dollar purchase of submarines and missile boats, an episode often described as the worst corruption scandal in Israel’s history.
Netanyahu’s office refused to comment, but Netanyahu’s aides nonetheless sought to turn the reports to their advantage. Topaz Luk, a media adviser to Netanyahu, posted an article on Twitter about Gantz’s latest moves with a comment that read: “Gantz plays politics while the prime minister makes peace.”
Gantz on Monday assailed what he called “the leak of the prime minister’s secret flight to Saudi Arabia” as “an irresponsible move.”
“I don’t act that way, and you all can imagine how many secret things I did in my life including as an emissary of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said at a meeting of his Blue and White party.
Asked about the reports by a member of his own party in a televised meeting late Monday afternoon, Netanyahu, who has often been accused of leaking reports to gain an advantage, demurred.
“I have never commented on such things in all my years, and I don’t intend to start now,” he said.
Reports of Netanyahu’s visit to Neom followed the end of the virtual Group of 20 summit meeting hosted by Saudi Arabia over the weekend and coincided with Pompeo’s arrival for a meeting with Prince Mohammed on Sunday night. Pompeo’s plane landed in Neom at 8:30 p.m. and departed three hours later.
A State Department statement about the visit did not mention Netanyahu.
Air-traffic monitoring websites showed a flight leaving Tel Aviv on Sunday around 7:30 p.m. that dropped off the radar near Neom about an hour later. The same plane reappeared and flew back to Tel Aviv after midnight.
Avi Scharf, editor of the English-language edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, posted a map of the first flight on Twitter on Monday.
“ABSOLUTELY rare Israeli flight direct to new Saudi megacity Neom on Red Sea shore,” Scharf wrote, noting that the jet used was one that Netanyahu had used before.