Netanyahu Met Mohammed bin Salman, Pompeo on Secret Trip to Saudi Arabia

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly flew to Saudi Arabia to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, according to Israeli media, a major breakthrough between the two Middle Eastern nations that have no official ties.

The covert meeting in the Saudi city of Neom on Sunday night was an “incredible achievement,” Education Minister Yoav Gallant said in an interview with Israeli radio on Monday, seeming to confirm reports of the trip despite a denial from a Saudi official and a refusal by Netanyahu to comment on the issue.

“The fact that there was a meeting and it was disclosed to the public, even if half-officially for now, is very important in every respect,” said Gallant, a member of Israel’s cabinet from Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

The trip, which would mark the first known meeting of an Israeli leader in Saudi Arabia, is a reflection of the emerging alliance between countries opposed to Iran and its version of Islam, Gallant said. Opposition to Iran is the cornerstone of President Donald Trump’s Middle East strategy and has served as the impetus for a string of diplomatic deals between Arab states and Israel.

Discussions centered on issues including normalization of ties and Iran, but no agreements were reached, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing a senior Saudi government adviser it didn’t name.

According to FlightRadar24, which tracks flights, a Gulfstream IV-SP took off on an unusual flight from Tel Aviv to Neom Bay Airport, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 22 around 7:30 p.m., and landed about an hour later. It then took off for Tel Aviv about three hours after that.

Israel’s prime minister was accompanied on the trip by Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad intelligence agency, public broadcaster Kan News reported, like other Israeli media citing unidentified people with knowledge of the matter in Israel.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan tweeted that no meeting with Israelis occurred. But he didn’t deny that Israeli officials came to Neom and the wording of his tweet didn’t rule out the possibility that Pompeo was a go-between between Netanyahu and Prince Mohammed, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien also declined to comment.

Netanyahu and the prince had met before, including in the recent past, Israel Hayom newspaper reported, citing an unidentified person who is in contact with senior Saudi officials. This time, however, the prince agreed that the meeting could be made public, to test the reaction in his country and the broader Arab world, it said.

Saudi Arabia, like most other Arab states, hasn’t recognized Israel as a state since its 1948 founding, though unofficial ties have warmed in recent years as regional alliances have shifted.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are in accord “on stopping Iran from becoming nuclear, stopping Iran’s nuclear and missile program, stopping Iran’s involvement overseas,” said Joshua Teiteblaum, a professor of the modern Middle East at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv. “They wanted to signal to the incoming administration that the U.S.’s Middle Eastern partners want to stay the course on Iran.”

Iran has figured centrally in Trump’s foreign policy, and Pompeo’s trip to the Middle East this past week appears in part to have aimed at making it more difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to undo the crushing sanctions Washington imposed in an effort to curb the country’s nuclear program and punish it for ties to terrorist groups. Biden has expressed interest in rejoining the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump quit two years ago, if Iran returns to compliance with the accord.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that Trump had mooted the idea of attacking Iran before the end of his term, though senior security officials apparently dissuaded him.

Israel’s recent normalization agreements with two other Gulf Arab states — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — created a potential joint front against Iran. Israeli officials have said they expect regional power Saudi Arabia to join the process, too, at some point.

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