Did he, or didn’t he? This was the question swirling around in the last week of November. The media was abuzz about a secret meeting between Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the futuristic Saudi city of Neom on November 22. The meeting was chaperoned by the outgoing US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Let us consider what was reported in the media but denied by the Saudis.
The American news channel CNN reported: “An Israeli government official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held his first ever known meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Sunday [November 22], but the claim was swiftly denied by Riyadh’s top diplomat (our emphasis).
“Speaking on Israel’s Army Radio on Monday [November 23], Education Minister Yoav Gallant called the covert meeting… an ‘incredible achievement’ and congratulated Netanyahu.
“‘Let’s say that the very existence of the meeting, the fact that it was put out publicly, even if it’s half official at the moment, is a matter of great importance from any aspect and matter,’ said a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, when asked about the Sunday meeting.”
Israeli public broadcaster Kan and other outlets also reported that the meeting between MbS and Netanyahu took place in the presence of Pompeo. Yossi Cohen, head of Israel’s spy agency Mossad, accompanied Netanyahu, according to Hebrew-language media citing an unnamed Israeli official.
The website FlightRadar24.com, that tracks flight data worldwide reported that a Gulfstream IV private jet had taken off just after 1740 GMT on November 22 from Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv. The flight travelled south along the eastern edge of the Sinai Peninsula before turning toward Neom and landed just after 1830 GMT, according to the data. The flight took off from Neom around 2150 GMT and followed the same route back to Tel Aviv. Other flight tracking websites ADS-B Exchange and FlightAware gave similar accounts.
Despite such evidence, why the Saudis are so coy in admitting it? Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan fired an angry tweet saying, “No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi.” Yet, the Saudis have met, very publicly, Israeli officials several times at various venues. MbS himself has spoken in glowing terms about Netanyahu and the Israelis. He also blessed the “normalization” of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain and permitted the Israeli airline El Al to overfly Saudi air space en route to Abu Dhabi.
What did the parties hope to achieve from such a meeting? MbS is facing serious problems at home. Members of the royal family and others are upset about his mishandling of the war on Yemen. The economy has tanked and largescale arrests of religious scholars as well as human rights activists have caused further angst. The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi two years ago has not been forgotten either.
Amid all these problems, MbS is anxious to become the king. He is seeking American and Israeli protection. With Donald Trump gone from office in late January 2021, he will lose an important protector, hence his desperate bid to seek Israeli protection. Is it far-fetched to assume that Israeli troops would be deployed in Saudi Arabia to protect him against his many enemies?
Netanyahu, however, wants to exact his price: recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia. Israeli officials have already described the Neom meeting as a ‘great achievement’. Saudi recognition would be a major success for Netanyahu who is facing a slew of corruption charges. Should Saudi Arabia recognize Israel while Netanyahu is in office, it is almost certain that both he and MbS would be jointly nominated, and perhaps given the Nobel Peace Prize. How the West rewards our traitors? After all, we have the examples of Anwar Sadat and Yasir Arafat before us.
But what is in it for Pompeo who will also be out of a job in a few weeks’ time? According to Colonel (retired) Douglas Macgregor, appointed to a senior position in the Pentagon last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “has his hands out for money from the Israeli lobby, the Saudis and others.” Macgregor has openly talked about the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in the US, as reported by CNN.
It is not just money. Pompeo has his eyes on the top spot in the US. There is speculation that he might make a run for the presidency in 2024. With his Christian evangelical background, stint at the CIA and State as well as strong backing from the Israeli lobby and tons of Saudi money, he is well-positioned. Add to that his propensity to lie (that he publicly admitted), like his boss Donald Trump, and he has all the right credentials to qualify for the White House.
One could hardly find a better definition of opportunism and cynicism.