JERUSALEM: Israeli media reports and a government source on Monday confirmed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met for landmark talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh denied the meeting took place.

The reports fuelled speculation that the Jewish state may be getting closer to normalising ties with the Saudi kingdom after its recent US-brokered deals with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain.

Netanyahu and Mossad spy agency chief Yosef Meir Cohen had met Saudi de facto ruler Prince Mohammed, together with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in the futuristic Red Sea city of Neom on Sunday, said Israeli public broadcaster Kan and other media.

While an Israeli government source confirmed the reports to AFP on condition of anonymity, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz in a speech condemned “the irresponsible leak of the secret flight to Saudi Arabia”. Netanyahu’s security cabinet member Yoav Gallant also told Army Radio: “The very fact the meeting happened, and was outed publicly, even if half-officially right now, is a matter of great importance.”

Israeli minister slams ‘irresponsible leak of secret flight to Saudi Arabia’

However, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan strongly denied the report that suggested the Saudi kingdom was moving away from its decades-old stance of refusing dialogue with the Jewish state until the Palestinian conflict is resolved.

“I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by @SecPompeo,” Saudi FM Prince Faisal tweeted. “No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi.”

While Pompeo confirmed he was in Neom city as part of a Middle East tour and met Prince Mohammed, the US State Department declined to confirm a trilateral meeting.

Asked about the Saudi trip during a public meeting of his Likud party on Monday, Netanyahu said: “I have never commented on these things and I do not intend to start now.”

Palestine condemns deals

Israel’s normalisation deals with the UAE and Bahrain, dubbed as the Abraham Accords, were brokered under US President Donald Trump, who will leave office in less than two months after his defeat in recent elections.

There has been speculation Washington may push for other Arab states to join the accords before President-elect Joe Biden is sworn in. Sudan has reportedly also agreed in principle to normalise ties with Israel.

While Israel has hailed the deals as historic diplomatic agreements, the Palestinians have condemned them and urged Arab states to hold firm until Israel ends its occupation of the Palestinian territory and agrees to the creation of a Palestinian state.

The Saudi kingdom — a close US ally and oil-rich buyer of military goods — has publicly insisted it will stick to the decades-old Arab League position of not having ties with Israel until it reaches a peace deal with the Palestinians. But some experts have said Biden’s upcoming inauguration may have created urgency in Riyadh that has dealt discreetly with Israel over a joint desire to contain common foe Iran.

Late night talks

Prominent Israeli diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid of Walla News and Axios reported that Netanyahu and Cohen flew on a plane belonging to Israeli businessman Udi Angel.

Ravid cited flight tracker data showing Angel’s plane leaving Israel at 8pm (1800 GMT) on Sunday, heading to Neom and returning to Israel five hours later.

Prior to the new accords, Israel only had peace treaties with two Arab nations, its neighbours Egypt and Jordan. But in late August, Netanyahu said Israel was holding “unpublicised meetings with Arab and Muslim leaders to normalise relations with the state of Israel,” without naming any countries.

Amid speculation that smaller Arab states like Oman were also interested in a deal, Saudi Arabia has stood out as the key target for Israel, given the kingdom’s wealth and influence.

Sunni Arab states as well as Israel worry that Biden may seek to revive the Iran nuclear deal agreed between Tehran and world powers during Barack Obama’s presidency, which was scrapped by Trump.

Trump’s administration has downplayed human rights issues in international diplomacy and was particularly cautious about criticising Saudi kingdom’s record, notably over the brutal murder of editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News channel and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

Multiple Israeli analysts have said the Biden administration would face a backlash from the progressive left faction of the Democratic Party if it pushed for an Israeli-Saudi peace deal without any meaningful rights reforms agreed by Riyadh.

Speaking to AFP in the days after the US vote, Netanyahu’s former envoy to Washington Michael Oren said it would likely not be “worth Biden’s while to take on his party” over a Saudi-Israel pact.—AFP

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2020

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