Netanyahu secretly meets with MBS in Neom

What happened: Israeli media reports this morning suggest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia yesterday and met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

  • The reports emerged after Avi Scharf, in Haaretz, published aviation tracking data of a private jet that made a rare trip between Tel Aviv and Neom in north western Saudi Arabia.
  • The flight remained on the ground for about two hours and returned to Israel at around half past midnight. It is the same private plane that Netanyahu has used several times for his visits to Russia.
  • It is thought that Netanyahu was accompanied by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen. According to Israeli media, neither Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi nor Defence Minister Benny Gantz were told about the trip.
  • Pompeo and MBS were already scheduled to meet in Neom on Sunday.  Pompeo tweeted earlier: “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.”

Context: Saudi Arabia has been supportive of Israel’s normalisation agreements with UAE and Bahrain but is thought not to be ready to endorse their own relationship publicly.

  • Normalisation with Saudi Arabia would be the most significant development of all. So far, the Saudi monarchy have stuck to conventional thinking that normalisation must include significant progress towards a Palestinian state. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said he has “supported normalisation with Israel for a long time, but one very important thing must happen first: a permanent and full peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians”.
  • Since the Israeli-UAE peace deal, Saudi Arabia will now allow Israeli airliners to use its airspace for commercial travel.
  • Secretary of State Pompeo was in Israel last week and has continued to tour the region. The meeting with MBS and Netanyahu likely focused on their shared concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme and their support of proxy militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria as well as the prospect of formal Israeli- Saudi ties.
  • Covert ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia have developed in recent years. The young crown prince believed to be keen to further develop ties, while his father, King Salman remains more cautious.

Looking ahead: The meeting is primarily a signal to Iran about the growing alliance between Israel and moderate Arab states. It is also a message to President-elect Joe Biden not to ignore Israeli and Saudi interests when he begins to formulate US policy toward Iran after 20 January.

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