Richmond Times-Dispatch

In a first, Israeli prime minister said to meet with Saudi prince

U. S.-backed move reflects a shared concern about Iran

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JERUSALEM— Israeli media reported Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia for a private meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which would mark the first known encounter between senior Israeli and Saudi officials. The reported meeting was the latest move by the Trump administra­tion to promote normalized ties between Israel and the broader Arab world and reflected the shared concern of all three nations about Iran.

The Israeli news site Walla, followed quickly by other Hebrew-language media, cited an unnamed Israeli official as saying that Netanyahu and Yossi Cohen, head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, flew Sunday night to Neom, Saudi Arabia, where they met with the crown prince. The prince was there for talks with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

People traveling with Pompeo declined to comment. In a meeting with his Likud Party, Netanyahu also declined to explicitly confirm the visit.

“I have not addressed such things for years and I will not start with that now. For years, I have spared no effort to strengthen Israel and expand the circle of peace,” he said.

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

“The only officials present were American and Saudi,” he wrote. He did not elaborate.

The flight-tracking website FlightRada­r24.com showed a Gulfstream IV private jet took off from Tel Aviv on Sunday night and flew south along the edge of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula before turning toward Neom and landing. The flight took off from Neom over three hours later and followed the same route back to Tel Aviv.

Pompeo, who was in Israel last week, traveled with a small group of American reporters on his trip throughout the Mideast, but left them at the Neom airport when he went into his visit with the crown prince.

While Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates have reached deals under the Trump administra­tion to normalize ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia so far has remained out of reach.

The Trump administra­tion, as well as Netanyahu, would love to add the Saudis to that list before it leaves office in January. Israeli Channel 12, citing an anonymous diplomatic official, said the Saudis told Netanyahu and Pompeo that they are not ready to normalize ties with Israel.

In Sudan, a military official said an Israeli delegation was in the country on Monday to discuss the normalizat­ion efforts. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the visit with the media.

King Salman long has supported the Palestinia­ns in their effort to secure an independen­t state as a condition for recognizin­g Israel. However, analysts and insiders suggest his 35-yearold son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, likely is more open to the idea of normalizin­g relations without major progress in the moribund peace process.

The reported meeting puts even more pressure on Iran ahead of an incoming Biden administra­tion that has signaled a potential willingnes­s to return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

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

In an apparent message to President-elect Joe Biden, Netanyahu said in a speech Sunday evening, shortly before the reported trip to Saudi Arabia: “We must not return to the previous nuclear deal.”

The reported visit Sunday night to Neom, still a largely undevelope­d desert region alongside the north end of the Red Sea, also reflected Prince Mohammed’s ambitions.

It brought two world leaders to Neom, which he hopes will become a futuristic, skylinestu­dded Saudi version of Dubai that will offer the kingdom jobs and cement a future beyond its vast crude oil reserves. It also would reframe a rule so far colored by the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the kingdom’s grinding war in Yemen.

It was unclear where the three men met, though the Saudi royal family has massive mansions along the turquoise waters of the Red Sea.

In another possible reference to the Saudi meeting, a Netanyahu aide, Topaz Luk, accused Netanyahu’s rival and coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, of “playing politics at the same time that the prime minister is making peace.”

On Sunday, Gantz launched an investigat­ion into Israel’s purchase of German submarines — a scandal that has turned several close Netanyahu confidants into criminal suspects. Netanyahu himself is not a suspect.

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