(Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Saudi Arabia and met its crown prince, an Israeli official said on Monday, in what would be the first publicly confirmed visit there by an Israeli leader as the countries close ranks against Iran.
Earlier, Israeli media said Netanyahu had secretly flown on Sunday to Neom, on the Red Sea, for talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Reports of the meeting between the crown prince and Netanyahu were denied by Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud.
“I met Pompeo at the airport and went with him to the meeting. I then took him back to the airport. Saudi and American officials were the only ones present throughout,” he said.
Saudi Arabia, Islam’s birthplace, has long championed the Palestinian cause and shunned official contacts with Israel.
Netanyahu, speaking publicly after the Saudi denial, was circumspect about any clandestine travel.
Asked at a meeting of his right-wing Likud faction about a Saudi visit, Netanyahu replied: “Are you serious? Friends, throughout my years I have never commented on such things and I don’t intend to start doing so now.”
Spokesmen for Pompeo declined comment.
But asked about the Israeli media reports, Yoav Gallant, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told Army Radio: “The very fact the meeting happened, and was outed publicly, even if half-officially right now, is a matter of great importance.”
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, in a speech, condemned “the irresponsible leak of the secret flight to Saudi Arabia”.
SIGNAL TO BIDEN?
Netanyahu, in an apparent message to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden, said in a speech on Sunday there should be no return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal abandoned by President Donald Trump.
As Trump’s term winds down, Pompeo has been trying to coax Saudi Arabia to follow the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in moving toward formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
Israel sent a delegation to Sudan on Monday, according to Israeli media. Israeli and Sudanese officials did not comment.
Israel and its Gulf partners may share concern about a possible review of U.S. policies in the region by Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20. Biden has said he would rejoin the nuclear accord that world powers signed with Iran if it first resumed strict compliance with the deal, and would work with allies to strengthen its terms.
Since August, Riyadh has allowed Israeli airliners to overfly Saudi territory to newly available Gulf destinations and Asia. More publicly closing ranks with the Saudi crown prince could help the conservative Netanyahu burnish his statesman credentials as he faces domestic challenges.
They include a trial on corruption charges – which Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, denies – and a feud with centrist coalition partner Gantz.
“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 favoured normalisation “for a long time”, but on condition Israel and the Palestinians reach “a permanent and full peace deal”.
Palestinian militant groups condemned the news of a softer Saudi line on their enemy, Israel. Palestinian Islamic Jihad called it “a betrayal of Jerusalem, blessed Mecca and Medina”.