Netanyahu, Mossad chief fly to Saudi, hold first known meet with crown prince

Groundbreaking meeting said held in presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is seeking to persuade Riyadh to normalize ties with Jerusalem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad head Yossi Cohen during a toast for the Jewish new year on October 2, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad head Yossi Cohen during a toast for the Jewish new year on October 2, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO/File)

In the first visit of its kind, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Saudi Arabia on Sunday, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli and Saudi officials said Monday.

Netanyahu was on the ground in Neom, a Red Sea city, for more than three hours for the first known high-level meeting between an Israeli and Saudi leader. He was accompanied by Mossad intelligence chief Yossi Cohen, Hebrew media reports said.

News of the meeting was confirmed early Monday afternoon by Education Minister Yoav Gallant. “I congratulate the prime minister on this amazing achievement,” Gallant said on Army Radio. “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 it indicated the growing “warm acceptance of Israel by the Sunni world,” and that this was “something our ancestors dreamed about.”

Two Saudi advisers also confirmed the talks.

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.

“Pleasure to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Our security and economic partnership is strong and we’ll continue to harness it to advance efforts to counter malign Iranian influence in the Gulf, economic goals under the Vision 2030 plan, and human rights reform,” tweeted the top American diplomat, describing the meeting as “constructive.”

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, Nov. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

There was no formal announcement by the participants about the meeting. However, in a hint at the trip, an aide to Netanyahu tweeted a report about Defense Minister Benny Gantz launching a probe into a naval acquisitions scandal, writing that “Gantz is playing politics while the prime minister is making peace.”

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri demanded an explanation from Saudi Arabia, calling the alleged visit “an insult to the nation and an invitation to attack Palestinian rights.”

The Kan public broadcaster reported that the talks focused on Iran and the incoming Biden administration.

Netanyahu and Cohen traveled to Saudi Arabia on the private plane of businessman Ehud Angel — the same jet that the prime minister used for a covert visit to Oman last year, according to Kan.

First reports of Netanyahu’s trip came after Twitter users 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.

Netanyahu had originally been slated to hold a meeting of his coronavirus cabinet meeting on Sunday night but pushed it off by a day, saying groundwork still needed to be completed.

Gantz, who was kept in the dark about efforts to establish ties with the UAE and Bahrain, had complained earlier on Sunday that he was not informed about the coronavirus cabinet meeting being moved.

An Israeli official told Hebrew media that neither Gantz nor Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, also of the Blue and White party, were given advance notice of Netanyahu’s trip to Saudi Arabia.

The  trip by the Israeli leader to Saudi Arabia marked a watershed moment in shifting Gulf ties with Israel, which have been bolstered in recent months at the urging of the Trump administration.

Netanyahu in May 2019 made a secret visit to Oman, another Gulf country with which Israel does not have diplomatic ties.

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.

“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 President Donald Trump announced that Israel and Sudan would be making peace, he predicted that Saudi Arabia would soon follow. During a call with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

In this May 20, 2017, file photo, US President Donald Trump (right) shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

When the White House announced in August that the United Arab Emirates and Israel had agreed to establish full diplomatic ties — a move matched by Bahrain weeks later — Saudi Arabia refrained from criticizing the deal or hosting summits condemning the decision, despite Palestinian requests to do so. The Palestinians have slammed the agreements as a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause,” but government-controlled Saudi media hailed them as historic and good for regional peace.

The kingdom also approved the use of Saudi airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE, a decision announced the day after Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, met with the crown prince in Riyadh. Kushner has been pushing Arab states to normalize ties with Israel and has said that the Jewish state could eventually enjoy fully normalized relations with Saudi Arabia.

The outgoing US administration and Israel are also seeking to step up pressure on Iran in the final days of the Trump White House.

Trump has yet to concede to Biden.

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