The Health Ministry designated Saudi Arabia as a “green” country on Monday, meaning returnees don’t need to quarantine, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a group of officials returned from a trip to the Gulf nation.
The move appeared specifically aimed at exempting Netanyahu and his team from quarantine; the addition of Saudi Arabia to the list will have little other practical effect as the country is officially designated an enemy state and there is no tourism or known business travel between the two nations.
Health Ministry Director General Chezy Levy signed the updated order, which was then published on a government website with no formal announcement, the Walla news site first reported.
Currently, only Israelis and foreigners with a residency visa are allowed to fly into Israel. Those landing from so-called “red countries” — those with high coronavirus rates — must observe a 14-day quarantine, while a return from “green countries” does not require travelers to self-isolate.
Riyadh’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Netanyahu held unprecedented talks late Sunday in the Saudi Red Sea city of Neom, along with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Sources in the Health Ministry told Walla that the decision to add Saudi Arabia to the list was made after a request from the Foreign Ministry.
“The Foreign Ministry asked the Health Ministry to examine whether Saudi Arabia is green and, if so, to declare it as such. They checked and it turned out that according to the indices it is green and therefore it was included in the list,” unnamed sources told Walla. There was no comment from the Prime Minister’s Office.
According to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University, 224 new cases of the coronavirus were reported in Saudi Arabia in the past day and there were 19 reported deaths as a result of COVID-19.
The updated Health Ministry directive also included Bahrain on the list of countries no longer requiring quarantine. On Monday, Netanyahu spoke with the crown prince and prime minister of Bahrain, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, to discuss the promotion of relations between the two countries, the state Bahrain news agency announced.
Bahrain normalized ties with Israel this year in a move that suggested at least a Saudi acquiescence to the idea, as the island kingdom relies on Riyadh.
But the Kan public broadcaster and Channel 12 both quoted unnamed senior Israeli officials Monday evening as saying that, despite Sunday’s first publicly acknowledged face-to-face talks between Netanyahu and the Saudi crown prince, no breakthrough in Israeli ties with Saudi Arabia 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.
A Saudi government adviser confirmed Sunday’s 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.
Reports Monday indicated that Netanyahu had not updated IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi or other security officials on his secret flight and meeting with the crown prince, despite the premier’s military secretary joining him on the trip.
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.
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.