An Israeli government official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held his first ever known meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday, but the claim was swiftly denied by Riyadh’s top diplomat.
Speaking on Israel’s Army Radio on Monday, Education Minister Yoav Gallant called the covert meeting, which reportedly took place in the Saudi city of Neom, an “incredible achievement” and congratulated Netanyahu.
“Let’s say that the very existence of the meeting, the fact that it was put out publicly, even if it’s half official at the moment, is a matter of great importance from any aspect and matter,” a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, when asked about the Sunday meeting. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also in Neom at the same time meeting with bin Salman as part of his tour of the Middle East. Several Israeli news organizations reported that Pompeo also took part in the meeting.
But Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, denied the meeting took place. “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,” bin Farhan tweeted Monday.
State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Cale Brown declined to comment to the pool traveling with Pompeo on the reports. The only meeting listed on his public schedule was one with the Saudi Crown Prince, which was closed to the press. Pompeo took no questions from the traveling press pool during the entire 10-day trip across Europe and the Middle East.
The Israeli government has not commented on the meeting, which has been reported by several Israeli news outlets, but there has been no official denial either. Netanyahu was joined by Mossad head Yossi Cohen, who has spearheaded the normalization efforts between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states, according to the Israeli reports.
A private business jet often used by Israeli officials was tracked flying in a highly unusual route from Israel toward Saudi Arabia and the city of Neom on Sunday, according to flight tracking websites ADS-B Exchange, FlightAware, and others. The flight returned to Israel a few hours later.
The meeting, if confirmed, would be the first of its kind between the Israeli Prime Minister and the Saudi Crown Prince, and it comes just months after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel. Bahrain almost certainly had tacit Saudi approval for the move, given the tiny kingdom’s reliance and closeness to Saudi Arabia, analysts have said.
Amos Yadlin, the executive director of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, suggested that such a meeting would represent a chance for Pompeo to promote the legacy of the Trump administration and try to advance additional normalization agreements with an eye to running for the White House in 2024. Perhaps more importantly, Yadlin said the three sides here were likely working against Iran in unison and planning what moves to make before a Biden administration takes office and pursues a nuclear agreement with Iran.
Pompeo and the Trump administration have put huge pressure on the Saudis to normalize relations with Israel, a senior Saudi diplomat told CNN. Even in the waning days of Trump’s time in office, Pompeo – who has yet to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory in the elections – has pressed forward, urging more countries to normalize ties with Israel. Before arriving in Saudi Arabia, Pompeo was in Qatar, another country high on the White House’s list for normalization with Israel.
“I believe in all my heart that the Trump administration policies that we have set up created the conditions for those leaders to make exactly that decision, and if they do, it will be a glorious thing for the region,” Pompeo told the Jerusalem Post during his stop in Israel. “The people of these countries will be better off, [with] more prosperity and opportunity.”
So far at least, those efforts have hit a wall, with Saudi officials insisting a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and recognition of a two-state solution is a necessary prerequisite for normalization, based on the 2002 Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative.
“We made [our position] very clear,” Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan told CNN. “We put an initiative on the table and we think that this is the right initiative that will bring peace to the Middle East, [recognizing] a two-state solution and the rights of the Palestinians.”
Yet the Arab Peace Initiative has begun to show cracks, enlarged by the Gulf state’s desires to form a united front against Iran and to draw closer to Israel. The most notable of those cracks were the normalization agreements the UAE and Bahrain signed with Israel. At least so far, the Saudis have not taken that decision, but the signs of their growing closeness to Israel – and their frustration with the Palestinians – are apparently growing.
Saudi’s former ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, ripped Palestinian leaders last month in an interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV, saying, “They always bet on the losing side.” He said the Palestinian criticism of the new normalization agreements was “shocking” and unacceptable. “They would fail and turn back to us again and we would support them again. We even went further and stood against the world by justifying the actions of the Palestinians while we know that they were not justified. But we did not wish to stand with anyone against them,” Prince Bandar said.
Saudi Arabia is a huge prize for Trump and Netanyahu, both of whom have suggested more Gulf countries would soon normalize relations with Israel. Saudi would be the most significant country by far, standing as the de facto leader of the Sunni Muslim world. A Saudi decision to normalize relations with Israel could potentially pull other Sunni countries along. The reported meeting between Netanyahu and bin Salman would be a step in that direction.
A short time before the private business jet left Israel, Netanyahu foreshadowed the continued change in relations with more Gulf states. Speaking at a memorial ceremony for Israel’s first leader, David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu said, “Following the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, recently, within six weeks, we brought three new peace agreements and normalization agreements: with the UAE, with Bahrain, and with Sudan. If we continue down this path of the strengthening of Israel’s power, and the strengthening of the ties with moderate Arab world that pushing toward stability and advancement – we will see more Arab states that widen the circle of peace.”
Speaking at a Likud faction meeting Monday afternoon in the Knesset, Netanyahu did not specifically address the meeting, but he said he is working to widen the circle of countries that have relations with Israel.
CNN’s Amir Tal and Mostafa Salem contributed to this report