Hebrew media said that the Israeli prime minister did not use an official plane. Instead, he used a private plane belonging to businessman Udi Angel, which he has used for past diplomatic trips. The plane left Israel at 5 p.m. on Sunday and returned after midnight, according to The Jerusalem Post. The Israeli newspaper also said that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israel’s Mossad chief Yossi Cohen also met with Netanyahu and bin Salman.
But Saudi Arabia denied that such a meeting took place on Sunday.
“I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between HRH the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi,” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said in a tweet on Monday noon.
But the Saudi denial did not reduce the damage to Saudi Arabia’s reputation. Social media users in the Arab world, especially in Palestine, strongly criticized Riyadh for embracing Netanyahu, after the Hebrew media broke out the news that the Israeli prime minister has secretly traveled to Saudi Arabia and met with the country’s crown prince. According to his former aide, Michael Oren, some Twitter users even took the Saudi denial with a pinch of salt, saying Netanyahu could be called American because he has been an American citizen twice and has twice renounced his citizenship.
The Saudi foreign minister rebuffed press reports about the Netanyahu-bin Salman meeting even though many leading news organizations have confirmed the meeting through their Saudi sources. For example, The Wall Street Journal confirmed the meeting. “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Saudi Arabia’s crown prince in the kingdom on Sunday, according to two Saudi government advisers, in their first known meeting and amid a U.S. push to normalize ties between the longtime foes,” the WSJ said, adding that Pompeo and Cohen attended the meeting.
Israeli officials also confirmed the meeting, according to Israeli news website Ynetnews, which reported that Israeli Education Minister Yoav Galant on Monday called the talks an “amazing achievement.”
“The very fact the meeting happened and was announced publicly, even if semi-officially for now, is a matter of great importance,” Galant said.
In addition, Netanyahu himself refused to confirm or deny the meeting.
The alleged meeting came a day after the Saudi foreign minister announced that his country supports a conditional peace with Israel. In remarks during a virtual interview on the sidelines of the G20 Leaders Summit hosted by the kingdom, bin Farhan pointed out that Riyadh supports full normalization with Israel, but first, a permanent and complete peace agreement should be approved that guarantees the Palestinians their state with dignity.
Pompeo is urging Saudi Arabia to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel just like what two of its close allies – Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates- did earlier this year.
In an October meeting with his Saudi counterpart, Pompeo called on Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel. “We hope Saudi Arabia will consider normalizing its relationships as well, and we want to thank them for the assistance they’ve had in the success of the Abraham Accords so far,” the U.S. secretary of state said at the time.
Following the Neom meeting, Pompeo said he held “constructive” talks with bin Salman, but he did not say whether these talks included normalization with Israel.
“Constructive visit with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in NEOM today. The United States and Saudi Arabia have come a long way since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and King Abdul Aziz Al Saud first laid the foundation for our ties 75 years ago,” Pompeo said in a tweet on Monday.
Pompeo has played a crucial role in brokering normalization deals between Israel and Bahrain, and the UAE.
The UAE and Bahrain signed normalization deals with Israel in mid-September in a move that sent a diplomatic shockwave across the region and brought them into disrepute. Many Muslim countries around the world strongly condemned the recognition of Israel by the two Arab countries, which have never fought wars with Israel and do not share borders with it. These deals were signed with the behind-the-scene support of Saudi Arabia, which itself is widely expected to normalize relations with Israel.
Last week, Mossad’s chief said in closed talks that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was awaiting the U.S. presidential elections in order to present a “gift” to the elected president, according to Aljazeera.
“There is a very great effort in the Saudi arena, great pressure. We hope that something will bear fruit. It seems that the Saudis are waiting for the American elections to present a gift to the elected president,” Cohen said.
But the Saudi leadership seems to be fearing the backlash of its own people as well as public opinion in the Arab world, which overwhelmingly supports boycotting Israel. In early October, Saudi news network Alarabiya aired a three-part interview with the influential former Saudi national security advisor Bandar bin Soltan in which he castigated the Palestinian leadership for failing to take advantage of the Saudi efforts to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This interview was widely seen as an attempt to delegitimize the Palestinian cause in the eye of Saudi youth and pave the way for a Saudi-Israeli normalization, which the Americans and Israelis see as a great prize.
But even if the public opinion in Saudi Arabia comes to terms with the normalization, bin Salman will get into trouble because millions of ordinary people in the Arab world will view him as a ruler who handed over the control of Muslim sanctities to the Zionists. In addition, bin Salman himself said that his life would be in danger if he cuts a peace deal with Israel. The Saudi crown prince told Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban he would fear for his life if he struck a normalization deal with Israel, Haaretz reported. Bin Salman said following in the steps of the UAE and Bahrain would get him killed by his own people and others. Therefore, bin Salam knows for sure that any normalization deal between Riyadh and Tel Aviv would amount to playing with fire and political suicide.