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IDF chief of staff reportedly didn't know about sit-down

TV report: Netanyahu, Pompeo hoped for normalization, but Saudis said no

Israeli security officials said to fume after PM keeps them in the dark about trip to enemy state for secret meeting with crown prince

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, L, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive to make a joint statement after meeting in Jerusalem on November 19, 2020. (Maya Alleruzzo / POOL / AFP)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, L, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive to make a joint statement after meeting in Jerusalem on November 19, 2020. (Maya Alleruzzo / POOL / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had hoped for a breakthrough in normalization talks with Saudi Arabia during Netanyahu’s face-to-face meeting Sunday with Riyadh’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but their hopes were frustrated, Israel’s Channel 12 news reported Monday.

Riyadh’s crown prince and Netanyahu held unprecedented talks late Sunday in the Saudi Red Sea city of Neom, along with Pompeo, reportedly including discussions on Iran and normalization.

The Kan public broadcaster and Channel 12 both quoted an unnamed senior Israeli official Monday evening as saying that no breakthrough was expected anytime soon.

“Despite the efforts by Netanyahu and Pompeo to convince them, the Saudis made clear that, at the moment, they are not ready to take the extra step. That’s why no additional [normalization] ceremony can be expected in the near future,” an official told Channel 12.

“No breakthrough toward an agreement is expected. It won’t happen so fast,” Kan cited an official as saying.

A Saudi government adviser confirmed the meeting and the trip 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.”

However, Saudi Foreign Minister 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 several 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.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a virtual G-20 summit held over video conferencing, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 22, 2020. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

Channel 12 quoted Israeli sources as saying the Saudis were angry that news of the meeting had been leaked. However, the Ynet news site earlier quoted two officials involved in the talks as saying the Saudi crown prince had not objected to the meeting being publicized.

Netanyahu’s office has not commented on the reported trip and meeting, but the premier did not deny that 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.”

Reports Monday indicated that Netanyahu had not updated IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi or other security officials of his secret flight and meeting with the crown prince, despite the premier’s military secretary joining him on the trip.

Brig. Gen. Avi Bluth joined the trip — the first known meeting between Israeli and Saudi leaders — as did Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, but Bluth did not update Kohavi even after news of the trip was reported, Hebrew media reported.

Security officials are angry at Netanyahu for departing to a country officially designated as an enemy state without informing much of the country’s leadership, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, the reports said.

He also did not designate anyone as his stand-in. Were anything to have happened while the prime minister was away, or to the prime minister, much of Israel’s leadership would have been caught entirely by surprise by his absence.

The meeting has intensified coalition tensions between Netanyahu and Gantz, who said Israelis should be concerned about the fact that the premier’s visit was leaked to the press, calling it “an irresponsible move,” and implying that the story was published for Netanyahu’s partisan political ends.

Tensions have been simmering for months between Netanyahu’s Likud party and Gantz’s Blue and White over the failure to pass the state budget and to make a series of senior appointments. It is widely believed that the government will fall and elections will be called over the coming weeks.

Gantz said Israelis “should be worried” about who leaked the information and why. “I do not behave in this manner, I never have and I never will.”

Israel’s military censor, in charge of preventing media reports that undermine national security, is part of the IDF, of which Gantz himself is in charge. It was not clear whether Gantz himself had the power to prevent the reports of Netanyahu’s trip from coming out.

The censor had been asked by media outlets whether the trip could be reported, after the private jet taking Netanyahu to Neom was spotted, Channel 13 news reported. The censor’s staff consulted with the Prime Minister’s Office, which did not seek to prevent the publication, the report said.

Another development was reported Monday in Israel’s efforts to normalize ties with Arab countries, as Israel’s first-ever official delegation to Sudan took off from Ben Gurion Airport on its way to Khartoum for talks between the two countries on the normalization deal announced last month.

This combination of pictures created on October 23, 2020, shows an Israeli flag during a rally in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on September 19, 2020; and a Sudanese flag during a gathering east of the capital Khartoum on June 3, 2020. (JACK GUEZ and ASHRAF SHAZLY / AFP)

The delegation was made up of a small group of government officials and was preparing the groundwork for a larger visit of higher-level Israeli officials in the coming weeks, the Ynet news site reported.

Channel 12 said that the trip had also raised disagreements between Netanyahu and Gantz. The premier wanted senior IDF officers to join the delegation, but Gantz thwarted that and said that was a step too far, given that no formal deal has been reached with Sudan, and it remains an enemy state for the time being.

Netanyahu’s office reacted by saying that “Gantz, for his own reasons, decided not to enable the departure of the security delegation and we hope he won’t hinder the important peace agreement with Sudan down the road.”

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

In September, the kingdom approved the use of its 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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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