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


FILE PHOTO: A combination picture shows Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Osaka, Japan June 29, 2019 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem February 9, 2020. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

RIYADH/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A historic meeting between Israel's prime minister 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.

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.

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 have formal diplomatic relations. 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," Israeli cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel's 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 Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu both enjoyed strong support from U.S. President Donald Trump and championed his "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran.

They fear Biden will adopt policies on Iran similar to those adopted during Barak 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.

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.

Pompeo, who has been trying to coax Saudi Arabia to follow the lead of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in normalising 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 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 normalise ties with Israel in the next few months.

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 signalled it is not yet ready to officially normalise 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 normalisation without first reaching a two-state solution," said Neil Quilliam, Associate Fellow at Chatham House think tank.

Despite this, normalisation 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.

Although the king chaired last weekend's virtual G20 leaders' summit, rumours 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.

The leak gave Netanyahu an opportunity to embarrass his political rival, Defence 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 normalisation.

(Reporting by Marwa Rashad in Riyadh; Samia Nakhoul in Beirut; Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams in Jerusalem. Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Mayaan Lubell in Tel Aviv; Writing by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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