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Liberman: Netanyahu endangering state by keeping security matters to himself

Leader of opposition Yisrael Beytenu party slams PM for secret trip to Saudi Arabia; will propose bill requiring senior defense officials be informed on security deals

Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman in court for a lawsuit filed against a journalist, at the Magistrate's Court in Petah Tikva, November 24, 2020. (Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman in court for a lawsuit filed against a journalist, at the Magistrate's Court in Petah Tikva, November 24, 2020. (Flash90)

MK Avigdor Liberman, the leader of the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party, criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his recent secret trip to Saudi Arabia, saying Wednesday that, in excluding his own ministers and defense officials from matters of state security, the premier was endangering the country.

Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia on Sunday for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and reportedly did not tell Defense Minister Benny Gantz or Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, both of the Blue and White party, about the trip.

In a statement posted to his Facebook page, Liberman accused Netanyahu of a “lack of coordination and transparency” with key government agencies, among them the foreign and defense ministries, as well as the military, including the army chief of staff.

Netanyahu’s trip to Saudi Arabia, which Liberman noted is “an enemy country,” without notifying the relevant bodies, “directly endangered the country’s security,” he wrote.

Liberman, who in the past served as defense minister under Netanyahu, said he would propose a bill later in the day requiring the prime minister to inform the defense minister, foreign minister, army chief of staff, and head of IDF intelligence on the details of any agreements that have security aspects or that impact Israel’s qualitative military edge.

“Whether they are oral or in writing,” Liberman stressed.

“This law is critical for the security of the country and public trust in the government,” he wrote.

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

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. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also participated in the face-to-face meeting with Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom.

Israeli officials were quoted in Hebrew media as saying that neither Gantz nor Ashkenazi 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, it 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.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 kept them in the dark 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. Critics, including Liberman on Wednesday, have said that while Israel already has the F-35, suppling the jets to the UAE will harm the Jewish state’s qualitative military edge in the region.

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi talks to the media at a news conference in front of the Liebermann Villa at the Wannsee Lake in Berlin, Germany, August 27, 2020. (Michele Tantussi/Pool Photo via AP)

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.

In their meeting with the Saudi crown prince, Netanyahu and Pompeo were hoping to secure normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia but were unable to get an agreement, Channel 12 news reported Monday.

There was no confirmation of the reported visit from official channels in Israel, the US or Saudi Arabia.

Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White have had a stormy relationship since forming a unity government earlier this year. With tensions between the parties increasing over the handling of the coronavirus outbreak and an approaching budget deadline, there has been increased talk that the government could fall, triggering Israel’s fourth election in two years.

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