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Despite confirmation by Saudi advisers, Riyadh FM denies prince met Netanyahu

Hours after Israeli and US media report on meeting, Faisal bin Farhan says no Israelis were present; Netanyahu doesn’t deny he flew to Gulf kingdom, but won’t comment

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, listens to Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud during their meeting at the State Department, October 14, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Manuel Balce CENATA / POOL / AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, listens to Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud during their meeting at the State Department, October 14, 2020, in Washington, DC. (Manuel Balce CENATA / POOL / AFP)

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Monday denied widespread reports that Riyadh’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks Sunday along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Iran and normalization, claiming that no Israeli officials had been there.

A Saudi government adviser earlier confirmed the meeting and the trip by the Israeli leader to Saudi Arabia on Sunday night to The Wall Street Journal, saying that the meeting, which had lasted several hours, focused on Iran and the establishment of diplomatic ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem, but did not yield substantial agreements.

Israel’s Education Minister Yoav Gallant also confirmed the trip, calling it “an amazing achievement.”

According to the Ynet news site, which quoted two officials involved in the talks, the Saudi crown prince did not object to the meeting being publicized. The meeting was also attended by Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency chief Yossi Cohen, an Israeli official told Hebrew-language media.

However, Prince Faisal bin Farhan denied that Netanyahu or any other officials from the Jewish state had taken part in a meeting with the crown prince, in a tweet issued many hours after the reports started circulating.

“I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by @SecPompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi,” he wrote.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference in Jerusalem, November 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)

According to Riyadh’s official account of the meeting, bin Farhan himself took part in the meeting.

Ehud Ya’ari, a veteran Middle East reporter for Israel’s Channel 12 news, said Netanyahu’s meeting with the crown prince was “not the first” that the two have held, and said the Saudi foreign minister’s denial should be taken with a grain of salt.

Pompeo earlier on Monday said he had held a “constructive” meeting with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince the night before, as he wrapped up a seven-nation tour that included stops in Israel and Gulf nations. He made no mention of the presence of the Israeli leader. The Saudi press had not made any mention of the talks as of Monday afternoon.

Netanyahu’s office has not commented on the matter, and the premier did not deny the meeting took place while making a cryptic statement at the outset of his Likud party’s weekly faction meeting.

“I have not commented on such matters for years and I am not going to start now,” he said, when asked directly about the trip by his coalition chief, Likud MK Miki Zohar. “For years I haven’t spared any effort to strengthen Israel and broaden the circle of peace.”

(L to R) US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, all mask-clad due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, arrive for a press conference after their trilateral meeting in Jerusalem on November 18, 2020. (Menahem KAHANA / POOL / AFP)

Pompeo traveled with an American press pool on his trip throughout the Middle East, but left them at the Neom airport when he went into his meeting with the crown prince.

First reports of Netanyahu’s trip — the first known meeting between Israeli and Saudi leaders — came after Israeli journalists noticed that a private jet had made a rare trip between Tel Aviv and Neom on Sunday evening, sparking speculation of a high-level meeting.

A Gulfstream IV private jet took off just after 1740 GMT from Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv to Neom, according to data from website FlightRadar24.com. The flight traveled south along the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula before turning toward Neom and landing just after 1830 GMT, according to the data. The flight took off from Neom around 2150 GMT and followed the same route back to Tel Aviv.

While Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates have reached deals under the Trump administration to normalize ties with Israel, a similar agreement with Saudi Arabia so far has remained out of reach.

US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid, left, and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, second from left, greet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan as they arrive at Neom Bay Airport in Neom, Saudi Arabia, November 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

In September, the kingdom approved the use of Saudi airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE, a decision announced the day after Jared Kushner, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, met with Prince Mohammed in Riyadh. Bahrain normalizing ties also suggested at least a Saudi acquiescence to the idea, as the island kingdom relies on Riyadh.

Israel has long had clandestine ties with Gulf Arab states that have strengthened in recent years as they have confronted a shared threat in Iran.

The Trump administration has hoped Saudi Arabia will join the UAE and Bahrain in recognizing Israel and forging diplomatic ties, but Saudi leaders have hitherto indicated that Israeli-Palestinian peace will have to come first.

“We have 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,” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said on Sunday.

In late October, when Trump announced that Israel and Sudan would be making peace, he predicted that Saudi Arabia would soon follow. During a call with Netanyahu, Sudan Sovereign Council president General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Trump brought reporters into the Oval Office, announced that “the State of Israel and the Republic of Sudan have agreed to make peace,” and told reporters there were another five countries “that want to come in.”

“We expect Saudi Arabia will be one of those countries,” Trump added, as he praised the country’s “highly respected” rulers King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

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