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Israeli Prime Minister Secretly Flew To Saudi Arabia, Israeli Media Reports

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shown here earlier this month, has reportedly visited Saudi Arabia.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, shown here earlier this month, has reportedly visited Saudi Arabia.

Updated at 8:30 a.m. ET

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly flew to Saudi Arabia on Sunday with his Mossad spy chief Yossi Cohen to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, multiple Israeli media outlets reported. Saudi Arabia's government has denied the reports.

It is the first such meeting between Israeli and Saudi leaders to be reported widely in Israeli media, and could be a signal that Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration are coordinating their stance on Iran before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.

Saudi Arabia's foreign minister has denied that the reported meeting with Netanyahu took place, saying "the only officials present were American and Saudi."

Biden has said he'd consider reviving the Iran nuclear deal, which President Trump left at Israel's urging. Israel and Saudi Arabia, which share covert ties, both see Iran as an adversary.

Netanyahu's office declined comment on the reported trip, but the prime minister may have dropped hints about it in a speech he delivered Sunday.

"We must not return to the old nuclear agreement. We must continue the uncompromising policy to ensure Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon," Netanyahu said. "Thanks to our firm stance against a nuclear Iran — and thanks to our opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran — many Arab countries fundamentally changed their approach to Israel."

Hours after Netanyahu delivered the speech, an online flight tracker recorded a private plane, one reportedly used by Netanyahu before, flying Sunday evening from Tel Aviv to Neom in Saudi Arabia and returning about five hours later.

Israeli media cited anonymous Israeli officials confirming the visit. Israeli journalists noted that Israel's military censor, which often bans publication of news sensitive to Israel's national security, approved the reports for publication.

It is unclear if Israeli and Saudi officials also discussed opening formal diplomatic relations in the reported meeting, following in the footsteps of Saudi Arabia's neighbors, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Pompeo, who has been touring Israel and Gulf Arab states touting the Trump administration's pressure campaign on Iran, announced his meeting Sunday with bin Salman in Saudi Arabia's new high-tech city Neom, but did not mention if Netanyahu was present. The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem declined comment.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival of Netanyahu, criticized that the alleged visit was leaked to Israeli media, though it was unclear if he was confirming the reports.

"The leak of the covert flight of the prime minister is an irresponsible step. I don't act that way. I never acted that way and I will never act that way, and I think in that context the citizens of Israel need to be concerned," Gantz said in a meeting with his political party, according to a statement from his party's office.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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