By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Nov 23 (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly flew to Saudi Arabia on Sunday to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and visiting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israel’s Kan public radio and Army Radio said on Monday.
If confirmed, it would be the first publicly acknowledged trip by an Israeli leader to ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, which has traditionally championed the Palestinian cause and shunned all official contacts with Israel.
As U.S. President Donald Trump’s term winds down, Pompeo has been trying to coax the [Persian]Gulf powerhouse to follow its neighbours, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in establishing formal relations with Israel.
Netanyahu’s office and the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem had no immediate comment on the reports.
Saudi state media made no mention of any visit by Netanyahu, and the Saudi government’s media office did not immediately respond to Reuters queries.
The rapprochement between Israel and the Persian Gulf states is built largely on shared concerns about Iran – and, potentially, about whether U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will review Washington’s regional policies.
FLIGHT TRACKING DATA
Netanyahu was joined on his Saudi trip by Mossad director Joseph (Yossi) Cohen, who has spearheaded discreet diplomatic outreach to [Persian]Gulf Arab states, said the Israeli media reports, quoting unidentified Israeli officials.
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 [Persian]Gulf destinations and Asia.
Avi Scharf of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper published aviation tracking data showing that a business jet had made a brief trip from Tel Aviv to Neom, on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, where bin Salman and Pompeo had a scheduled meeting on Sunday.
More publicly closing ranks with the Saudi crown prince could help the conservative Netanyahu burnish his statesman credentials as he faces domestic challenges, including a trial on corruption charges, which he denies, and a feud with centrist coalition partner Benny Gantz, Israel’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 supported complete normalisation of ties “for a long time”, but on condition that Israel and the Palestinians reach “a permanent and full peace deal”.
(Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan, Writing by Dan Williams Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Gareth Jones)