BEIRUT — A covert meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia would be a historic first, suggesting that the two countries were making progress toward establishing formal diplomatic relations.
But the contradictory news on Monday about such a meeting — with unsourced Israeli media reports saying it had taken place clashing with a denial from the Saudi foreign minister — highlighted the domestic politics in each country and signaled how far apart the two countries remained from the prospect of exchanging ambassadors.
Israeli news outlets reported early Monday that Netanyahu and the head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, Yossi Cohen, had flown to Saudi Arabia on a private jet on Sunday evening. In a meeting with Prince Mohammed in Neom, a futuristic city planned near the Red Sea coast, the three men discussed Iran, which both countries consider a threat, and the possible normalization of relations, the Israeli reports said.
Netanyahu refused to comment, but Israeli journalists close to him were among the first to report the story. Flight-tracking websites documented the jet’s trip from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia, and three officials close to Netanyahu alluded to the meeting’s significance, appearing to confirm that it happened.
“The fact that the meeting took place and was made public — even if it was in only a semiofficial way — is something of great importance,” Yoav Galant, the education minister, said in a radio interview. “This is something our ancestors dreamed about.”
But hours after the news echoed around the world, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, denied that any meeting with Netanyahu had taken place, insisting that Prince Mohammed had met only with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was completing a seven-nation farewell tour.
“There was no meeting,” Prince Faisal wrote in a text message. He said that he had accompanied Pompeo throughout his visit and that “Saudi and American officials were the only ones present.”
The conflicting statements reflected different priorities: Israel and the Trump administration have promoted the idea that a diplomatic opening between Saudi Arabia and Israel is only a matter of time, while the Saudis have insisted that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal must come first.
Netanyahu, who has often been accused of leaking reports for political gain, had ample reason to trumpet any incremental steps in building relations with Saudi Arabia. He is eager to improve his standing at home as a leader who can turn Israel’s foes into friends and to divert attention from corruption allegations.
The calculation is different for Prince Mohammed, who has told American visitors that he does not consider Israel an enemy but that opening official relations too quickly could inspire extremists and be used against him in a region where Israel remains unpopular.
Reports of the visit followed agreements by the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan to establish formal relations with Israel, moves that the Trump administration pushed to crack a boycott of Israel by most Arab states in solidarity with the Palestinians.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have never had formal diplomatic relations, and Prince Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, said as recently as Saturday that the kingdom had long supported normalization but only after an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. The Saudis’ Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 offered Israel full normalization with the Arab world after the Palestinians achieved statehood.
But the kingdom’s tone when speaking about Israel has shifted in recent years, and rapidly in recent months.
Prince Mohammed, 35, a son of the Saudi monarch and the kingdom’s de facto ruler, has said that both Israelis and Palestinians have the right to their land and that Israel has overlapping economic and security interests with Arab states, specifically over their shared animosity toward Iran.
The Saudi news media has begun publishing articles about Israeli culture and politics, and last month a Saudi satellite channel aired extensive interviews with Prince Bandar bin Sultan, a former intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington, who harshly criticized the Palestinian leadership.
Saudi Arabia played a quiet but instrumental role in aiding the Trump administration’s effort to broker the diplomatic openings between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, according to a senior Israeli official. Last month, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to commercial flights to and from Israel, saying it had done so at the request of the Emirates. Most Arab states block such overflights as part of their boycott of the Jewish state.
The lack of significant protests in the Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan after their agreements with Israel could also help clear the way for Saudi Arabia to follow suit, the Israeli official said.
Pushing ahead with normalization in the waning days of the Trump administration would not necessarily create problems for the incoming Biden administration.
Although President-elect Joe Biden took a tough line on Saudi Arabia during the campaign, vowing to end US support for the Saudi military in Yemen and to treat the Saudis like “the pariah that they are,” analysts say he is likely to welcome further Saudi-Israeli rapprochement. It remains unclear whether his administration will push for it in the same way President Trump has or seek to use the possibility as leverage in efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
Opening diplomatic ties with Israel could help Prince Mohammed rehabilitate his reputation in Washington, dampening criticisms of the Saudi war in Yemen, crackdowns on activists, and the killing of the dissident Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in 2018.
For Netanyahu, headlines about a possible diplomatic breakthrough, breathlessly covered by the Israeli media, provided a welcome distraction from an unwelcome story: the formation by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a Netanyahu rival, of a government commission to investigate Netanyahu’s multibillion-dollar purchase of submarines and missile boats, an episode often described as the worst corruption scandal in Israel’s history.