Israeli Prime Minister Secretly Flew To Saudi Arabia, Israeli Media Reports

Nov 23, 2020
Originally published on November 23, 2020 9:11 am

Updated at 8:30 a.m. ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly flew to Saudi Arabia on Sunday with his Mossad spy chief Yossi Cohen to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, multiple Israeli media outlets reported. Saudi Arabia's government has denied the reports.

It is the first such meeting between Israeli and Saudi leaders to be reported widely in Israeli media, and could be a signal that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration are coordinating their stance on Iran before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has denied that the reported meeting with Netanyahu took place, saying "the only officials present were American and Saudi."

Biden has said he'd consider reviving the Iran nuclear deal, which President Trump left at Israel's urging. Israel and Saudi Arabia, which share covert ties, both see Iran as an adversary.

Netanyahu's office declined comment on the reported trip, but the prime minister may have dropped hints about it in a speech he delivered Sunday.

"We must not return to the old nuclear agreement. We must continue the uncompromising policy to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon," Netanyahu said. "Thanks to our firm stance against a nuclear Iran — and thanks to our opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran — many Arab countries fundamentally changed their approach to Israel."

Hours after Netanyahu delivered the speech, an online flight tracker recorded a private plane, one reportedly used by Netanyahu before, flying Sunday evening from Tel Aviv to Neom in Saudi Arabia and returning about five hours later.

Israeli media cited anonymous Israeli officials confirming the visit. Israeli journalists noted that Israel's military censor, which often bans publication of news sensitive to Israel's national security, approved the reports for publication.

It is unclear if Israeli and Saudi officials also discussed opening formal diplomatic relations in the reported meeting, following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia's neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Pompeo, who has been touring Israel and Gulf Arab states touting the Trump administration's pressure campaign on Iran, announced his meeting Sunday with bin Salman in Saudi Arabia's new high-tech city Neom, but did not mention if Netanyahu was present. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem declined comment.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival of Netanyahu, criticized that the alleged visit was leaked to Israeli media, though it was unclear if he was confirming the reports.

"The leak of the covert flight of the prime minister is an irresponsible step. I don't act that way. I never acted that way and I will never act that way, and I think in that context the citizens of Israel need to be concerned," Gantz said in a meeting with his political party, according to a statement from his party's office.

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The Trump administration has been trying to bring Israel and Saudi Arabia together in part to counter Iran. And this might be happening now. Israeli media says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met secretly with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the kingdom. Reports say Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also attended the meeting. Saudi Arabia, however, has denied that this meeting took place. So let's try to find out what happened here with NPR international correspondent Daniel Estrin, who is in Jerusalem. Daniel, good morning.


GREENE: So did this meeting happen or not?

ESTRIN: Well, multiple Israeli media outlets are reporting that it did, that Netanyahu flew with his Mossad spy chief to Saudi Arabia and met with Pompeo and with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It would be the first known meeting between Israeli and Saudi officials. Now, Pompeo announced that he did have a meeting with the Saudi crown prince yesterday in this high-tech city in Saudi Arabia called Neom. He did not say if Netanyahu was there. But there is an online flight tracker that tracked a private jet that flew yesterday from Tel Aviv to that city in Saudi Arabia.

GREENE: Flight trackers always tell the truth, at least where the planes are going. What are Saudi and Israeli officials saying about whether this happened or not?

ESTRIN: The Saudi foreign minister is flat out denying that any Israeli officials were at that meeting. Israeli officials, however, are being coy. They're not denying it. Netanyahu was asked about it. He smirked. And he said he wouldn't comment but that he has worked for many years to try to widen Israel's connections with Arab states. Two Israeli cabinet ministers did appear to confirm it. They may have just been commenting on the news reports. But Education Minister Yoav Gallant said on the radio that Netanyahu traveling to Saudi Arabia was a great achievement. And the Israeli defense minister, Benny Gantz, said it was irresponsible to publicize this secret meeting because Saudi Arabia and Israel have covert ties.

GREENE: Well, if this did happen, how significant is it?

ESTRIN: It would be very significant. As I said, this would be the first public known meeting between Israeli and Saudi officials. They have covert ties. But they are known to have one common goal, which is to act against Iran. They and the Trump administration see Iran as a top threat in the region. Pompeo has been pushing a maximum pressure campaign against Iran. So these leaders could have been coordinating their positions on Iran ahead of a Biden presidency if this meeting did take place - perhaps, coordinating actions against Iran as well that could make it harder for the Biden administration to reach out diplomatically to the Iranians.

The backdrop here, of course, is that Biden has said that he might reenter the Iran nuclear deal. And yesterday, Netanyahu gave a speech before this reported trip to Saudi Arabia. And he said we should not revive the Iran nuclear deal. And he said Israel's opposition to such a deal is what brings Israel and Arab countries close together. So maybe he was kind of hinting there about what he was up to yesterday.

GREENE: All right. Interesting developments. NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

Daniel, thanks, as always.

ESTRIN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.