בנימין נתניהו, מוחמד בן סלמאן
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Photo: Reuters
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Covert Israeli-Saudi meeting sends Biden a strong message on Iran

Analysis: Meeting in the Saudi city of Neom, confirmed by Israeli officials but publicly denied by Riyadh, conveyed a coordinated message to U.S. president-elect that Washington’s main allies in the region are closing ranks against the Islamic Republic

Reuters |
Published: 11.29.20, 20:04
A historic meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has sent a strong signal to allies and enemies alike that the two countries remain deeply committed to containing their common foe Iran.
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  • Last Sunday’s covert meeting in the Saudi city of Neom, confirmed by Israeli officials but publicly denied by Riyadh, conveyed a coordinated message to U.S. President-elect Joe Biden that Washington’s main allies in the region are closing ranks.
    8 צפייה בגלריה
    בנימין נתניהו, מוחמד בן סלמאן
    בנימין נתניהו, מוחמד בן סלמאן
    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
    (Photo: Reuters)
    It was the first publicly confirmed visit to Saudi Arabia by an Israeli leader and a meeting that was unthinkable until recently as the two countries do not hold formal diplomatic ties. But it underlines the depth of the two countries’ concerns about Iran, and shows how opposition to Tehran is bringing about a strategic realignment of countries in the Middle East.
    “It’s Iran, Iran, Iran,” cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Army Radio when asked about the visit. “It is very, very important to create the axis which isolates Iran.”
    Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler, and Prime Minister Netanyahu both enjoyed strong support from U.S. President Donald Trump and championed his “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
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    נשיא ארה"ב דונלד טראמפ עם יורש העצר של סעודיה מוחמד בן סלמאן ועידה G20 אוסקה יפן
    נשיא ארה"ב דונלד טראמפ עם יורש העצר של סעודיה מוחמד בן סלמאן ועידה G20 אוסקה יפן
    U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
    (Photo: Reuters)
    They fear Biden will adopt policies on Iran similar to those adopted during Barack Obama’s U.S. presidency which strained Washington’s ties with its traditional regional allies.
    Biden has said he will rejoin the international nuclear pact with Iran that Trump quit in 2018 - and work with allies to strengthen its terms - if Tehran first resumes strict compliance.
    Both Israel and Saudi Arabia have recently ramped up rhetoric against Iran, which is locked in several proxy wars with Riyadh in the region.
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    ג'ו ביידן
    ג'ו ביידן
    U.S. President-elect Joe Biden
    (Photo: Reuters)
    Iran has built a network of armed Shi’ite militias across the Arab world, from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon and down into the Gulf and Yemen. Tehran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen attacked Saudi oil installations last week, the latest in a string of attacks on Saudi targets.
    Israel is waging a shadow war against Iranian forces, mostly through regular air raids in Syria on Lebanese Shi’ite paramilitary group Hezbollah, on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and on supplies of weapons as they are moved across the country.

    SAUDI KING NOT INFORMED

    Sunday’s meeting was held in the presence of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israel’s spy chief, Israeli media said.
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    מייק פומפאו עם מוחמד בן סלמאן ב סעודיה
    מייק פומפאו עם מוחמד בן סלמאן ב סעודיה
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
    (Photo: AFP)
    Pompeo, who has been trying to coax Saudi Arabia to follow the lead of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in normalizing ties with Israel, declined to confirm the meeting. But diplomats in the region said U.S. envoys had privately confirmed the meeting took place.
    Netanyahu declined to comment on the meeting. He has yet to visit the UAE and Bahrain since formal ties were established, with tacit approval from Gulf powerhouse Saudi Arabia.
    On Thursday, he said he expected more countries to normalize ties with Israel in the next few months.
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    L-R: Bahrain FM Abdullatif al-Zayani, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Emirati FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House
    L-R: Bahrain FM Abdullatif al-Zayani, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Emirati FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House
    L-R: Bahrain FM Abdullatif al-Zayani, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, and Emirati FM Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan at the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House
    (Photo: AFP)
    There was limited talk of the meeting on Saudi social media, but some opposition figures denounced the visit. Political analysts said the Saudi denial of the meeting could have been a way to test the waters at home.
    Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has softened its stance on Israel in recent years, but signaled it is not yet ready to officially normalize ties, which analysts say would be a difficult move for King Salman in the absence of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
    “(The meeting with Netanyahu) aimed to highlight that MbS (Mohammed bin Salman) is more willing than his father to take steps towards normalization without first reaching a two-state solution,” said Neil Quilliam, Associate Fellow at Chatham House think tank.
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    Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz arrives to NEOM economy zone's airport in Neom, Saudi Arabia
    Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz arrives to NEOM economy zone's airport in Neom, Saudi Arabia
    Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz arrives at Neom Airport in Neom, Saudi Arabia
    (Photo: Reuters)
    Despite this, normalization is not expected to happen while King Salman is alive, said a well-connected Saudi source and a foreign diplomat in Riyadh.
    “Normalisation ... is a carrot to get (Biden’s) focus away from other issues, especially (Saudi) human rights,” the diplomat said.
    The Saudi source and the diplomat said the Saudi king was kept in the dark about Netanyahu’s visit.
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    מזכיר המדינה האמריקני מייק פומפאו
    מזכיר המדינה האמריקני מייק פומפאו
    U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Saudi King Salman
    (Photo: Reuters)
    Although the king chaired last weekend’s virtual G20 leaders’ summit, rumors of his declining health have swirled since he was admitted to hospital this summer.
    A video was leaked during the G20 summit which showed MbS correcting the confused king’s recollection, a leak which sources said was intentional.
    The Saudi government media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

    ISRAELI LEAK

    The leak of Prince Mohammed’s meeting with Netanyahu may have been intentional from Israel: an executive jet was used for the direct flight from Tel Aviv, which was quickly spotted on open-source flight trackers, and Israeli censors made no efforts to quash reporting on the trip.
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    בני גנץ ישיבת סיעה כחול לבן
    בני גנץ ישיבת סיעה כחול לבן
    Defense Minister Benny Gantz
    (Photo: Knesset Channel)
    The leak gave Netanyahu an opportunity to embarrass his political rival, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is due to take over as prime minister a year from now under a power-sharing agreement.
    It included news that Netanyahu had not informed Gantz about the flight, in effect implying to Israeli voters that the centrist politician cannot be trusted to keep a secret, following speculation that an early election is on the cards.
    Gantz called the leak “irresponsible”.
    Netanyahu has acknowledged he also kept Gantz in the dark about secret negotiations with the UAE that led to normalization.
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