Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi were reportedly kept in the dark about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s secret visit to Saudi Arabia on Sunday, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
In the first visit of its kind, Netanyahu flew to the Saudi Red Sea City of Neom for the first known high-level meeting between an Israeli and a Saudi leader, an Israeli official told Hebrew media on Monday. He was accompanied by Mossad intelligence chief Yossi Cohen, according to reports in Hebrew-language media citing unnamed Israeli officials.
Israeli officials were quoted in Hebrew media saying that neither Gantz nor Ashkenazi, who had been kept in the dark about efforts to establish ties with the UAE and Bahrain, were given advance notice of Netanyahu’s trip to Saudi Arabia.
Spokespeople for both Gantz and Ashkenazi said they had no comment on the trip or on the reports that the Blue and White leaders had not been informed.
However, this would not be the first time the two were kept out of the loop on government activities within their purview regarding contacts with Arab states.
Gantz and Ashkenazi were not told of talks earlier this year with the United Arab Emirates, which were largely handled by Israel’s ambassador to the US Ron Dermer. Netanyahu later said he did this because of fears they would leak the news and plans to formalize relations would be disrupted by regional foes.
The UAE deal has been accompanied by a US agreement to sell the Gulf nation advanced F-35 stealth fighters and other top-flight arms, a move initially opposed by Gantz. The defense minister accused Netanyahu of keeping him and other top defense officials in the dark over those negotiations as well.
Gantz complained Sunday morning that he had not been told about a one-day delay of a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet slated for that evening. While officials said more time was needed to prepare materials for the meeting, reports have indicated that it was actually moved so Netanyahu could fly to Saudi Arabia instead.
Responding to the reports that neither Gantz nor Ashkenazi were informed of the visit, opposition leader Yair Lapid, of the Yesh Atid party, said he wasn’t surprised.
“Organizing such a trip requires the involvement of dozens of people for security arrangements. But as usual they did not know,” Lapid tweeted. “They are not involved in any diplomatic issues.”
There was no confirmation of the reported visit from official channels in Israel, the US or Saudi Arabia.
The reports of Netanyahu’s visit 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. Israel’s military censor later removed a gag order preventing publication of reports about the trip.
ABSOLUTELY rare Israeli flight direct to new Saudi mega-city Neom on Red Sea shore
It was Bibi's ex-fav bizjet t7-cpx. Back to Tel Aviv after 5 hours on ground pic.twitter.com/Ty9aedYbsK
— avi scharf (@avischarf) November 23, 2020
Covert ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia are believed to have been growing in recent years. The shift in policy has reportedly been led by the crown prince, who sees Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.
The Trump administration has hoped Saudi Arabia would join the UAE and Bahrain in recognizing Israel and forging diplomatic ties, a move seen as increasingly distant in the wake of Joe Biden’s election as US president. But Saudi leaders have hitherto indicated that Israeli-Palestinian peace will have to come first.
In late October, when US President Donald 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.