Netanyahu took secret flight to Saudi Arabia to meet crown prince

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a secret two-hour trip to Saudi Arabia where he met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in a visit that signals a historical shift in relations between the erstwhile foes, according to two Israeli officials.

This weekend’s trip is the first known instance of any Israeli leader visiting Saudi Arabia, which has considered the state of Israel an enemy since its birth in 1948.

The meeting on Sunday was attended by US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and was an attempt to revive Washington-brokered talks intended to enhance ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which had faltered after President Donald Trump’s election loss, an Israeli official said.

Mr Trump has been pushing Arab states to normalise relations with the Jewish state and talks with Saudi Arabia were expected to pick up pace if he secured a second term, the official said. It is unclear how much progress was made before the November 3 vote.

The Israeli officials said the two leaders also discussed shared concerns about Iran as President-elect Joe Biden is expected to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal Tehran signed with world powers.

Mr Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia on a private jet with Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, according to Israel’s Army Radio.

The Israeli prime minister’s office did not return calls seeking comment. Saudi Arabia made no public comment about the meeting.

One Israeli official familiar with the meeting said the trip was set up by Mr Pompeo during his three-day official visit to Jerusalem last week, where he visited a Jewish settlement winery in the occupied West Bank.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo (centre right), seen here being greeted by Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan after landing at Neom Bay airport on Sunday, also attended the secret meeting © Patrick Semansky/POOL/AFP/Getty

Mr Cohen, the architect of Israel’s anti-Iran alliance with several Gulf nations, had also lobbied for the trip, an Israeli official said.

Speculation has been rife about whether Saudi Arabia would follow its Gulf allies, the UAE and Bahrain, and Sudan, in recognising Israel. Israeli officials consider the kingdom as the main prize as they seek to forge formal ties with Arab states.

But most experts believed the kingdom, which is home to Islam’s two holiest sites and considers itself as a leader of the Muslim world, would be far more cautious, given its history and King Salman’s support for the Palestinian cause.

Riyadh led the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which promised Israel peace with its Arab neighbours only if the Jewish state withdrew from land occupied during the 1967 war and reached a settlement to allow for the creation of a viable Palestinian state.

The initiative remains the formal position of the Arab League. Saudi foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told Reuters on Saturday that the kingdom “supported normalisation with Israel for a long time, but one very important thing must happen first: a permanent and full peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians”.

Unlike the UAE and Bahrain, which signed US-brokered normalisation deals last month, Saudi Arabia has fought in Arab wars against Israel and it has a far larger population, sections of which would be opposed to any agreement with the Jewish state.

Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s de facto leader, is believed to be more amenable to a deal than his father and Saudi Arabia and Israel have been covertly co-operating on security and intelligence issues because of their shared concerns about Iran. Both countries opposed the nuclear deal signed by the Obama administration and supported Mr Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic republic.

A Saudi deal could also go some way to rehabilitate Prince Mohammed’s reputation in the US where he has been criticised by Democrats for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents two years ago and the war in Yemen.

There were hints of a shift in Riyadh’s position last month when Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, a former Saudi ambassador to the US and intelligence chief, launched a blistering attack on the Palestinian leadership for criticising the UAE and Bahrain for agreeing to recognise Israel. 

In a three-part monologue aired on Saudi television viewed as laying the groundwork for a potential deal with Israel, he lambasted Palestinian leaders for their failures and suggested the kingdom should put its own interests first. 

“In my personal opinion, with all the events that have taken place around the world, we are at a stage in which rather than being concerned with how to face the Israeli challenges in order to serve the Palestinian cause, we have to pay attention to our national security and interests,” Prince Bandar said. It was highly unlikely that the senior royal would have made such comments without being sanctioned by Prince Mohammed.

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