Benjamin Netanyahu secretly flew to Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to Israeli media, signalling a potential breakthrough in US efforts to broker a deal between the kingdom and Israel, its long-term foe.
If confirmed, the meeting would be the first publicly acknowledged trip by an Israeli leader to the ultra-conservative nation, whose king is the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites and whose economy is the largest in the Arab world.
Saudi Arabia has previously shunned all contact with Israel, traditionally championing the Palestinian cause instead, including spear-heading key peace initiatives over the decades-old conflict.
However, the Israeli prime minister flew to the kingdom on Sunday night with Yossi Cohen, director of the Mossad intelligence agency, who has led discreet diplomatic outreach to Gulf Arab states, Israel’s Kan public radio and Army Radio reported.
Mr Netanyahu and Mr Cohen apparently met Prince Mohammed and the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in Neom on the Red Sea coast, where the crown prince plans to build a massive hi-tech city.
Mr Netanyahu’s office and the US embassy in Jerusalem did not respond to The Independent’s request to comment on the reports.
The flight was seen on flight-tracking websites, where radar data showed Mr Netanyahu’s preferred private jet, Gulfstream IV, taking off from Tel Aviv at 7.30pm Israeli time, travelling to Neom and landing back in Tel Aviv five hours later.
According to political sources speaking to Israeli outlets, Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partners Benny Gantz, who is Israel’s alternate prime minister, and the foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, were not told about the meeting.
Mr Pompeo travelled with an American press pool throughout his trip around the Middle East, but left them at the Neom airport when he went to visit the crown prince.
Saudi Arabia has long supported the Palestinians in their effort to secure an independent state and in the early 2000s led the Arab Peace Initiative, under which Arab states would recognise Israel in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territory captured in the 1967 war.
Pleasure to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Our security and economic partnership is strong and we'll continue to harness it to advance efforts to counter malign Iranian influence in the Gulf, economic goals under the Vision 2030 plan, and human rights reform. pic.twitter.com/2Kt22Ne4vn
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 23, 2020
However, analysts and insiders suggest that the Saudi crown prince, who is keen to diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy, is more open to the idea of normalising relations without major progress in the long-deadlocked peace process.
Saudi Arabia’s close allies the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have already signed US-brokered deals with Israel. The US president, Donald Trump, has speculated that Riyadh will soon follow suit.
Mr Trump touted the peace deals as major foreign policy wins in the run-up to the US election, and will likely be trying to cement an agreement before he leaves office in January as part of his legacy.
While the kingdom has publicly denied the rumours, it is thought to have facilitated the Gulf deals.
The kingdom would likely have approved Bahrain’s deal with Israel, as the island kingdom heavily relies on its powerful neighbour. Saudi Arabia also allowed the use of its airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE, a decision announced the day after Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, met with Prince Mohammed in Riyadh.
Israel has long had clandestine ties to the Gulf but those have strengthened in recent years as they have confronted a shared threat in Iran.