Pompeo reignites debate over MBS-Netanyahu meeting

Published November 26, 2020
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the US Embassy in Kabul on June 25, 2019. — Reuters/File
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the US Embassy in Kabul on June 25, 2019. — Reuters/File

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has reignited a debate about a purported meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by saying that the two “may or may not have” met.

The US and Israeli media reported earlier this week that the two leaders met in a little Saudi town called Noam on Sunday to discuss normalising ties between the longtime foes. Saudi Arabia has denied the meeting took place, but Israel has not.

Media reports claimed that Secretary Pompeo was also in Neom at the same time and participated in the meeting.

In an interview broadcast on Tuesday evening, Fox News anchor Bret Baier asked Pompeo to end the debate by making it clear if Netanyahu met bin Salman during “your visit to the region?”

“Well, look, I have seen the reporting. I was with each of those two. I was with the prime minister in Jerusalem. I was with the head of (Israeli intelligence agency) Mossad in Jerusalem as well,” Pompeo responded. “We had productive discussions. I will leave to them to discuss the meetings that they may have had or may not have had.”

“Do you expect more normalisation announcements from other countries, like Saudi Arabia, with Israel before the end of President Trump’s term?” the anchor asked.

“I do. I expect more normalisation announcements. Whether they will come in the next 30 days or 60 days or six months is difficult to know, but the direction of travel is very clear,” said the chief US diplomat.

Since September, two Arab states – the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – have already recognised Israel and both are close US allies.

Trump, who is scheduled to transfer power to President-elect Joe Biden on Jan 20, sent Pompeo to the Middle East earlier this month, apparently to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow the two Gulf states before he leaves the White House.

“The rationale for that (recognising Israel) has a little bit to do with American policy. We got it right. We took away the excuse of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. We took away the excuse that the United States was going to appease Iran,” said Pompeo while explaining why he expects other Arab states to normalise their relations with Israel.

“In the end, those were good and sovereign decisions by those leaders. Those countries are more safe, more secure, and they will be more prosperous.”

He said that all those who joined the Abraham Accords between Israel and the UAE “will see the benefits for their own people and I am highly confident that many, many more nations will ultimately choose to do the right thing and recognise Israel as the rightful homeland of the Jewish people.”

In a radio interview on Monday, Israel’s Education Minister Yoav Gallant called the covert meeting between Netanyahu and bin Salman an “incredible achievement” and congratulated the Israeli prime minister.

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 Secretary Pompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi,” bin Farhan tweeted on Monday.

“Conflicting accounts reflect the political sensitivity of warming relations with Israel for Saudi Arabia, which for decades has competed with Iran for the mantle of Islamic leadership,” commented a prominent US newspaper, Wall Street Journal, while reporting that its sources also confirmed the meeting.

An Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Noam was the place to hold the secret meeting because so far it only had “a smallish airport, no city. It would make perfect sense to fly there on a private jet and keep your foreign affairs and defence ministers in the dark.”

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2020

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