Saudi Arabia denies meeting between MBS and Israeli officials


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem June 28, 2020. No such meeting occurred.

The Israeli and Saudi governments have not commented officially on the meeting, which was first reported by Barak Ravid of Walla!

Netanyahu's travel to the Red Sea coast was confirmed based on data from online flight radar sites that showed "a private jet departing from Tel Aviv Sunday evening and flying directly to Neom".

The Israeli media reports said Mr Netanyahu was joined on the trip by spy agency Mossad's director Yossi Cohen, who has spearheaded discreet diplomatic outreach to Gulf Arab states.

The reports had set off a flurry of commentary on what would have been a major step forward in the Arab world's engagement with Israel. "We must stick to an uncompromising policy to ensure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons", Netanyahu said in a speech in southern Israel.

But some experts have said that Biden's upcoming inauguration may have created urgency in Riyadh, which has dealt discreetly with Israel over a joint desire to contain common foe Iran. The report, however, said this is the first time that such a high level meeting was convened between the two countries that have had a "secret relationship" for many years.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was also in the city of Neom as part of his swing through the region, two days after he had been in Israel. The flight took off from Neom over three hours later and followed the same route back to Tel Aviv.

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Ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has traditionally championed the Palestinian cause and shunned all official contacts with Israel.

The reported meeting puts even more pressure on Iran ahead of an incoming Biden administration that has signalled a potential willingness to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

According to political sources, Defense Minister Benny Ganz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, both from Blue&White, were not in the loop about the Saudi trip.

Riyadh has so far declined to normalise ties with Israel.

The kingdom approved the use of Saudi airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE.

Opening diplomatic ties with Israel could also help Prince Mohammed rehabilitate his reputation in Washington, dampening criticisms of the Saudi war in Yemen, crackdowns on activists and the killing of the dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018.