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Israel's Netanyahu made secret trip to Saudi Arabia to meet crown prince, say reports

Saudi foreign minister denies meeting or any visit by Israeli officials, despite anonymous confirmations to US media
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, L, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrive to make a joint statement after meeting in Jerusalem on 19 November 2020 (AFP)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly flew to Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to Israeli media.

Sources told Haaretz that the overnight meeting took place in Neom, a flagship megaproject being built on the Red Sea, and that Mossad chief Yossi Cohen was also in attendance.

Flight tracking websites noted that Netanyahu's private jet, one used in past for visits to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was on the ground for about two hours and returned to Israel at 12:30am.

Two Saudi government advisers confirmed the visit to the Wall Street Journal.

However, later on Monday Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud tweeted that "no such meeting occurred".

The trip, if confirmed, would mark the first official trip by an Israeli leader to Saudi Arabia.

In response to a question about the trip, Netanyahu did not deny the trip took place.

“I never commented on those issues and I will not start now," he told the coalition whip, according to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid.

"I'll just say that I am working on broadening the circle of peace."

A source told Israeli news site Walla that Netanyahu did not update Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on the visit.

The meeting comes among Pompeo's tour of Gulf states where he has been pushing for US allies to maintain a maximum pressure approach against regional rival Iran.

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Bahrain and the UAE have signed normalisation deals with Israel, in part to provide a united front against Iran, and many have speculated that Saudi Arabia will soon follow.

However, in an interview with Reuters over the weekend, Farhan Al Saud said that while the kingdom had "supported normalisation with Israel for a long time" there needed to first be "a permanent and full peace deal" between Israel and the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia is anticipating a less cordial relationship with incoming US President Joe Biden than it enjoyed with current President Donald Trump, who has been a driving force in establishing normalisation deals with Israel.

In 2019, Biden referred to Saudi Arabia as a "pariah" state and warned he would make the kingdom “pay the price” for the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul.

However, the Saudi foreign minister said he was "confident that a Biden administration would continue to pursue policies that are in the interest of regional stability".