Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Israeli PM held secret talks in Saudi with US state secretary, crown prince: reports

Multiple Israeli officials were quoted as saying that Mohammed bin Salman and the head of the Mossad spy agency met Pompeo and Mohammed bin Salman in the city of Neom.

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Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held secret talks in Saudi Arabia Sunday with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, media said, in the first reported trip by an Israeli premier to the kingdom.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was in Israel last week, was also at the reported talks, a diplomatic correspondent at Israeli public broadcaster Kan said on Monday.

The broadcaster cited unnamed Israeli officials as saying that Netanyahu and the head of the Mossad spy agency, Yossi Cohen, “flew yesterday to Saudi Arabia and met Pompeo and MBS in the city of Neom”, referring to the often used initials of Prince Mohammed.

The reported meeting comes weeks after Israel agreed historic US-brokered deals to normalise ties with two Saudi allies in the Gulf, the UAE and Bahrain, pacts known as the Abraham Accords.

Multiple other Israeli media outlets reported on a Netanyahu trip to Saudi Arabia, including prominent diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid of Walla News and Axios, who reported Netanyahu and Cohen flew on a plane belonging to Israeli businessman Udi Angel.

Ravid also cited flight tracker data that apparently showed Angel’s plane leaving Israel at 8pm (1800 GMT) on Sunday, heading to Neom on the Red Sea and returning to Israel five hours later.

Netanyahu’s office was not immediately available to comment on the reports.

The Saudi royal court and media ministry did not immediately respond to AFP’s request for comment on the reported meeting between Netanyahu, Prince Mohammed and Pompeo.

Pompeo had travelled to Neom on Sunday from the UAE as part of a Middle East tour.

The Abraham Accords were brokered by outgoing US President Donald Trump’s administration.

US and Israeli officials have repeatedly indicated that more Arab states were set to forge ties with Israel. Sudan has agreed to do so in principle.

In late August, Netanyahu said Israel was holding secret talks with multiple Arab countries.

Publicly, Saudi Arabia has said it would stick to the decades-old Arab League position of not having ties with Israel until the Jewish state’s conflict with the Palestinians is resolved.

Israeli experts have raised questions about the prospects of expanding the Abraham Accords under US president-elect Joe Biden’s administration, particularly with respect to Saudi Arabia.

Trump’s administration downplayed the role of human rights in international diplomacy, and in particular was cautious about criticising Saudi Arabia’s rights record, notably over the murder by Saudi agents of prominent journalist and Saudi royal critic Jamal Khashoggi.

Multiple Israeli analysts have said that a Biden administration, which will face pressure from the progressive left in the Democratic party, would suffer a backlash if it pushed for an Israeli-Saudi peace deal without any meaningful rights reforms agreed by Saudi Arabia.

With Trump’s term set to end on Jan 20, some Israeli experts have speculated that Washington would lobby hard for an Israeli-Saudi deal before Biden takes office.

Israel and the Arab Gulf state have engaged in quiet diplomacy for years over their common foe Iran.

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