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Monday, November 23, 2020

JERUSALEM — A Gulfstream private jet secretly ferried Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a precedent-shattering meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the weekend, the latest in a series of U.S.-brokered breakthroughs that could re-write the strategic map of the Middle East.

News of the Sunday evening meeting, which also included the head of Israel’s intelligence service and visiting Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, leaked almost immediately in the Israeli press, followed by a denial from Saudi Arabia that it had ever taken place.


And less than a day after he returned, Mr. Netanyahu’s trip was clouded in controversy as he was accused of not informing his political coalition partners.
Coaxed strongly by the Trump administration, Israel and two Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, made peace in September, signing the “Abraham Accords” as a pathway to diplomatic normalization. Sudan, which announced a separate easing of relations with Jerusalem last month, hosted an Israeli delegation to discuss the path forward on Monday.

The agreements were seen as a vindication of Mr. Trump’s push to end Israeli isolation in the region, sideline the Palestinians as an obstacle to peace, and, most important, forge an alliance of Arab states and Israel to contain and roll back Iran and its regional allies.

There were strong U.S. hints that more peace deals could come on the next months, but the tumultuous Nov. 3 election has cast doubt on subsequent deals.
The hard-charging Saudi crown prince has long been seen as one ready to break with the oil-rich kingdom’s traditional policies, but was reportedly being held back by the more cautious King Salman.

The Netanyahu flight departed at seven in the evening and returned after midnight. Israel, which often censors sensitive information about flights to countries with which Israel has no relations, did not censor the details of the trip.
Israel’s Channel 10 said that national security chief Meir Ben Shabbat, Israeli Defense Forces Brig. General Avi Blot and others were on the delegation.
The Associated Press reported that Mr. Pompeo traveled with a small group of American reporters on his swing throughout the Mideast, but went alone to his visit with the crown prince in Neom.

Unlike the Saudis, Mr. Netanyahu did not deny that he travelled to Saudi Arabia, saying only that he never comments on such issues “I will not start now.”
“I’ll just say that I am working on broadening the circle of peace,” he added.
But Mr. Netanyahu aide Topaz Luk appeared to affirm the trip by suggesting Mr. Netanyahu’s own coalition partners from the rival Blue and White Party had been “doing politics” at a time when the prime minister was “making peace.”

The trip’s publicity appears to have led to more friction between Mr. Netanyahu and his main coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz. Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, according to a report by Walla News correspondent Barak Ravid, was also not informed of the meeting.

In the past, Mr. Netanyahu has kept his coalition in the dark about his most daring diplomatic initiatives. During the UAE negotiations, he was accused of consenting to the sale of U.S. F-35s to the UAE, which Mr. Netanyahu denied. Israel later acquiesced to the sale and has said it will not erode Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.

For Saudi Arabia, custodian of Islam’s holiest sites and the most influential and powerful of the Gulf Arab states, public acknowledgement of the Netanyahu visit would be very uncomfortable.

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, denied on Twitter that the meeting took place.

“No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi,” he wrote.

Analysts said Israel and Mr. Pompeo would love to have a Saudi normalization deal nailed down before Democrat Joseph R. Biden is set to take office Jan. 20, to cement Mr. Trump’s approach in place and as a warning to Tehran.

“I think there’s a message to Iran,” said Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a prestigious Israeli think tank. “‘Look, there’s a front against you. There’s two months to go to the new administration. Beware. We are on the same page.’”


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