Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met the Saudi crown prince in Saudi Arabia, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Monday, the first publicly confirmed trip to the kingdom by an Israeli leader amid a diplomatic flurry prompted by regional fears of Iran.
Earlier, Israel’s Army Radio and Kan Radio both reported that Netanyahu had secretly flown on Sunday to the Saudi Red Sea town of Neom for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has traditionally championed the Palestinian cause and shunned all official contacts with Israel. But the kingdom, its Gulf allies and Israel have a shared deep distrust of Iran.
News of the meeting came a day after Netanyahu, in an apparent message to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, said in a speech there should be no return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal abandoned by President Donald Trump.
Netanyahu’s office and the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem had no immediate comment on the media reports, but Education Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet and Likud party, confirmed the Saudi meeting had taken place, describing it as 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,” Gallant told Army Radio.
The Saudi government’s media office did not immediately respond to Reuters queries on the issue.
As Trump’s term winds down, Pompeo has been trying to coax Saudi Arabia, the Gulf powerhouse, to follow its neighbours, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in establishing formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
As well as wanting to contain Iran, Trump and Pompeo are also concerned about a possible review of U.S. policies in the region by the incoming Biden administration.
Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, has said he would rejoin the nuclear accord that world powers signed with Iran if it first resumed strict compliance with the deal, and would work with allies to strengthen its terms.
The Israeli media reports said Netanyahu had been joined on the trip by Mossad director Joseph (Yossi) Cohen, who has spearheaded discreet diplomatic outreach to Gulf Arab states.
Riyadh has so far declined to normalise ties with Israel. But since August it has allowed Israeli airliners to overfly Saudi territory to newly available Gulf destinations and Asia.
More publicly closing ranks with the Saudi crown prince could help the conservative Netanyahu burnish his statesman credentials as he faces domestic challenges.
They include a trial on corruption charges – which Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, denies – and a feud with centrist coalition partner Benny Gantz, the country’s defence minister.
“Gantz does politics while the prime minister makes peace,” Netanyahu spokesman Topaz Luk tweeted.
Asked on Saturday whether Riyadh had changed its position on Israel, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister said the kingdom had favoured normalisation “for a long time”, but on condition Israel and the Palestinians reach “a permanent and full peace deal”.
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Gareth Jones)