TEL AVIV – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Saudi Arabia over the weekend, a senior cabinet minister told local media, signaling a potential breakthrough for Israel as it strives to be accepted in the region.
Various Israeli news outlets and Axios, citing Israeli sources, reported on Monday that Netanyahu had met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a visit with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – the first known meeting between the Crown Prince and Netanyahu.
On IDF radio, Education Minister Yoav Gallant praised Netanyahu for the “remarkable achievement” but did not say that bin Salman and Netanyahu had met.
Netanyahu declined to comment on the reports on Monday, saying only, “I have never talked about this stuff and I will not start now. I am determined to strengthen Israel. “
The State Department also declined to comment. NBC News was unable to confirm that Netanyahu and the Crown Prince had met.
Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, meanwhile, denied that a visit had taken place, saying in a tweeter “No such meeting took place. The only officials present were Americans and Saudi Arabians ”.
Rumors of thawing relations between the two powers in the Middle East have swirled for years as nations have seen their security interests overlap, with both seeing Iran as an existential threat.
If Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam, accepted Israel, it would be a major signal to other Arab and Muslim countries that relations with Israel are no longer prohibited.
Pompeo met bin Salman in the new Saudi city of Neom on the Red Sea on Sunday as part of an international tour, possibly his last as secretary of state. Immediately after landing, Pompeo said in a tweeter that he looked forward to “discussing our efforts to fight terrorism, deter Iran’s malicious influence, promote respect for human rights, and expand our bilateral trade relations.”
Journalists traveling with Pompeo were left on the airport tarmac and did not accompany him to the meeting.
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FlightRadar24.com flight tracking website showed that a Gulfstream IV private jet took off from Tel Aviv on Sunday evening and flew south along Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula before turning to Neom and landing. . The flight took off from Neom more than three hours later and followed the same route back to Tel Aviv.
Pompeo pushed for Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, and Sunday’s meeting came after the United States negotiated three agreements to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.
“It looks like the Saudis are preparing to normalize with Israel,” said Daniel Shapiro, former US ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2017, and visiting scholar at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
“They’re preparing their own audiences, they’ve already given at least tacit support to the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization accords, they’ve created a narrative in their own media about the failures of the Palestinian leadership. So it seems to be a matter of time. “
After the deal with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia allowed Israeli airliners to fly over their territory. Prior to these agreements, Israel had relations with only two Arab countries – Egypt and Jordan.
Saudi Arabia has said in the past that it remains committed to peace based on the Arab Peace Initiative, which called for the normalization of relations with Israel on the condition that Israeli forces are withdrawn from the West Bank, from East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
Former Saudi intelligence chief and Saudi ambassador to the United States, prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz, last month criticized the Palestinian leadership for criticizing the decision by some Gulf states to normalize relations with Israel .
Palestinians fear that the normalization of Arab world relations with Israel will weaken their efforts for an independent state.
Pompeo made stops in Israel where he met Netanyahu and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Alzayani in Jerusalem. He also became the first Secretary of State to visit an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
Rachel Elbaum reported from London, Paul Goldman from Tel Aviv. The Associated Press contributed to this report.