2020 has been marked by an accelerated rate of official normalisation of ties between Arab states and Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly flew to Saudi Arabia on Sunday to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli media said.
A member of Netanyahu’s cabinet and Likud party on Monday confirmed reports that the Israeli leader had held a meeting in Saudi Arabia, calling it an “amazing achievement”.
“The very fact the meeting happened, and was outed publicly, even if half-officially right now, is a matter of great importance,” Education Minister Yoav Gallant told Army Radio when asked about the visit.
However, Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, denied reports that a meeting took place between MBS and Israeli officials in a tweet later on Sunday.
Sunday’s meeting, if happened, would mark the first known encounter between senior Israeli and Saudi officials, amid a US push to convince Arab countries to normalise ties with Israel.
Earlier on Monday, Israel’s Kan public radio and Army Radio said Mossad chief Yossi Cohen also attended the meeting, which was reportedly held in Neom on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast.
Netanyahu’s office and the US embassy to Israel had no immediate comment. There has also been no comment from the Saudi government.
According to Israeli daily Haaretz, aviation tracking data showed that a private jet had made a brief trip from Tel Aviv to Neom, where MBS and Pompeo had a scheduled meeting on Sunday.
Flight-tracking websites showed that the plane was grounded for approximately two hours before it returned to Israel about half an hour past midnight.
The jet, according to Haaretz, is the same private plane Netanyahu took several times for his visits to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Pompeo has tried to coax the Gulf powerhouse to follow its neighbours, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, in establishing formal relations with Israel – a rapprochement built largely on shared concerns over Iran.
Riyadh has so far declined to normalise ties with Israel, saying Palestinian statehood goals should be addressed first. But the Saudis have allowed Israeli airliners to overfly their territory to newly available Gulf destinations and to Asia.
Over the weekend, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said his country has “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”.
During a meeting with the Saudi foreign minister last month, Pompeo had urged the Saudis to consider normalising relations with Israel.
“We hope Saudi Arabia will consider normalising its relationships as well, and we want to thank them for the assistance they’ve had in the success of the Abraham Accords so far,” Pompeo said.