After Saudi Adviser Confirms MBS-Netanyahu Meeting, Saudi Foreign Minister Denies

Saudi FM tweets 'no such meeting occurred' after a senior Saudi adviser tells the Wall Street Journal that normalization and Iran were on the agenda at the trilateral secret meeting

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the country, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 22, 2020
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his visit to the country, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 22, 2020Credit: BANDER ALGALOUD/COURTESY OF SA

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister denied media reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman met in Saudi Arabia on Sunday.

A senior adviser had earlier confirmed normalization and Iran had been discussed at the meeting, which was kept secret, but that no agreements had been reached, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud tweeted that "no such meeting occurred" between Bin Salman and Israeli officials. He added the only officials present during U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visit to the Kingdom over the weekend were American and Saudi.

Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said Monday that the leaking of information regarding Netanyahu's secret flight to Saudi Arabia is irresponsible, and should bother the country's citizens. According to political sources, Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi were left in the dark about the meeting.

Netanyahu referred to Ganz's remarks at a Likud meeting, but did not confirm or deny the trip. "I have not addressed such things for years and I will not start with it now," Netanyahu said, "I can only tell you that throughout my years as Prime Minister I have spared no effort to strengthen the State of Israel and expand the circle of peace."

The t7-cpx plane on Sunday night Credit: Avi Scharf

This came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Sunday flight to Saudi Arabia was seen on flight-tracking websites.

The trilateral meeting involved the Israeli premier, Mohammed bin Salman, and Mike Pompeo, Israeli sources said Monday.

Mossad chief Yossi Cohen also attended the meeting, which took place in the city of Neom, according to the sources. There were also reports that Col. Avi Blut, Netanyahu's military secretary, had joined the trip – with no prior knowledge of the Israeli military or its chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, who learned of his inclusion in the media.

Netanyahu's aide Topaz Luk later tweeted that "Gantz is doing politics while the prime minister is making peace," apparently in reference to Gantz's announcement on Sunday that he has established a governmental commission of inquiry into Israel's procurement of submarines and other naval vessels in the so-called "submarine affair."

At a Monday meeting of his Likud parliamentary group on Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu refused to confirm or deny the visit had taken place, saying it had been his policy for a long time not to address this kind of reports. "For years, I have spared no effort to strengthen Israel and expand the circle of peace," he added. 

Gaza-based Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which have a close relationship with Saudi regional rival Iran, both blasted the Saudi government in separate statements following the report, asking for clarifications from Riyadh. Hamas called the visit a “humiliation and a violation of Palestinian rights,” while Islamic Jihad said it was a “betrayal of Al Aqsa and Mecca.” The Palestinian Authority had yet to issue a response.

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The flight took off from Israel at 7:30 P.M. and landed in Neom, remaining on the ground for about two hours. The plane returned to Israel at around half past midnight, according to the flight-tracking websites.

This is the same private plane that Netanyahu took several times for his visits to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and that the prime minister intended to take for the White House ceremony for the signing of the normalization agreement with the UAE and Bahrain, before a public backlash forced him to fly with El Al.  

Over the weekend, the Saudi foreign minister touched upon the recent normalization deals in an interview to Reuters, stating that Saudi Arabia has "supported normalization with Israel for a long time, but one very important thing must happen first: a permanent and full peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians."

This comes amid Pompeo's tour of Gulf Arab states, where he touted the Trump administration's Mideast strategy that focused on Iran as “the central threat inside the region” and for a maximum pressure campaign that hampered Iran's ability to support militias in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

The outgoing secretary of state and the Trump administration have long tried to coax Saudi Arabia into joining other Arab countries in normalizing relations with Israel.

Reuters contributed to this report.