Israeli media reported Monday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia for a clandestine 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 to the Saudi city of Neom on Sunday, 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 comment. Netanyahu, in a meeting with his Likud Party, 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.
“No such meeting occurred. 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. 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-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, likely is more open to the idea of normalizing relations without major progress in the moribund peace process.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have a shared interest in countering archrival Iran, and they have welcomed the Trump administration’s pressure campaign on the Iranians, which included withdrawing from the international nuclear deal with Iran and imposing tough economic sanctions on the Tehran government.
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.”
In the same speech, Netanyahu also praised “trailblazing Arab leaders who understand the benefits of peace” and predicted “we will see other states that widen the circle of peace.”
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.” Gantz on Sunday 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.
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, skyline-studded 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, with a major golf course.
Netanyahu has long signaled back-channel relations with the Saudis, though the nations have never officially confirmed a meeting between their leaders. But Saudi Arabia appears to have given its blessing to the decisions of its Gulf neighbors, the UAE and Bahrain, to establish ties with Israel.
The kingdom approved the use of Saudi airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE. Bahrain normalizing ties also suggest at least a Saudi acquiescence to the idea, as the island kingdom relies on Riyadh.
Mortars slammed into a residential area of the Afghan capital, killing eight people Saturday, hours before outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held what are likely his last meetings with the Taliban and Afghan government negotiators trying to hammer out a peace deal.
The attack in Kabul, which was blamed on Islamic State militants, also injured 31 people, reports AP.
The assault came as peace talks were underway in Qatar, where Pompeo told Afghan government negotiators that the U.S. will “sit on the side and help where we can” in the negotiations with Taliban militants.
Two Taliban officials told The Associated Press that the two warring sides have found common ground on which to move forward the stalled talks. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media, did not elaborate.
In Kabul, at least one of the 23 mortar shells fired from two cars hit inside the Iranian Embassy compound. No one was injured, but it damaged the main building, the Iranian Embassy said in a tweet. At least 31 people were hurt elsewhere in the city, according to the Afghan Interior Ministry.
The local Islamic State affiliate issued a statement claiming the attack that targeted the so-called Green Zone in Kabul which houses foreign embassies, the presidential palace and Afghan military compounds, according to SITE Intelligence Group.
In Doha, Pompeo also met with the co-founder of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who signed the peace agreement with Washington in February ahead of the so-called intra-Afghan talks. The insurgent group’s spokesman, Mohammad Naeem, tweeted that further prisoner releases were discussed in the meeting, in addition to those that the two warring sides committed to ahead of peace talks under the U.S. deal.
Naeem said the Taliban also repeated their demand that Taliban leaders be removed from the United Nations sanctions list. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed earlier Saturday issued a statement assailing the Afghan government for requesting the U.N. maintain sanctions on Taliban leaders.
For most Afghans, the overriding concern has been a sharp rise in violence this year and a surge of attacks by the Taliban against Afghanistan’s beleaguered security forces, since the start of peace talks in September.
The announcement this week that the United States will accelerate its planned troop withdrawal has lent greater urgency to the intra-Afghan negotiations and to the calls for a reduction in violence. Washington announced it would withdraw another estimated 2,500 troops before the middle of January leaving about 2,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have, however, held to their promise not to attack U.S. and NATO troops.
The United States has been pressing in recent weeks for a reduction in violence, while the Afghan government has been demanding a cease-fire. The Taliban have refused, saying a cease-fire will be part of negotiations.
There are many within the Afghan government who want February’s peace deal scrapped. President-elect Joe Biden has previously advocated a small, intelligence based force in Afghanistan to focus on counter-terrorism.
Meanwhile, Abdullah Abdullah, head of the government’s High Council for Reconciliation, condemned in a tweet Saturday’s attack on the capital, calling it a “cowardly” act. The council oversees the government’s negotiating team at the table with the Taliban in Doha.
Pakistan, whose Prime Minister Imran Khan visited on Tuesday Kabul for the first time since he came to office, condemned the attack and warned “it is important to be vigilant against the spoilers who are working to undermine the peace efforts.” He did not identify “the spoilers.”
Hours before the attack rattled Kabul, a bomb attached to a car killed one security personnel and wounded three others in an eastern neighborhood of the capital, said Kabul police spokesman Ferdaws Faramarz.
Violence in Afghanistan has spiked in recent months with increasingly horrific attacks often claimed by the Islamic State group affiliate.
A settlement watchdog group said Sunday Israel is moving ahead with new construction of hundreds of homes in a strategic east Jerusalem settlement that threatens to cut off parts of the city claimed by Palestinians from the West Bank.
The group, Peace Now, said the Israel Land Authority announced on its website Sunday that it had opened up tenders for more than 1,200 new homes in the key settlement of Givat Hamatos in east Jerusalem.
The move may test ties with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, who is expected to take a firmer tack against Israeli settlement expansion after four years of a more lenient policy under President Donald Trump, who has largely turned a blind eye to settlement construction.
The approval of the 1,200 homes is a further setback to dwindling hopes of an internationally backed partition deal that would enable the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The Palestinians along with critics of Israel’s settlement policy say construction in the Givat Hamatos settlement would seal off the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and the southern West Bank from east Jerusalem, further cutting off access for the Palestinians to that part of the city.
“This is a continuation of the current Israeli government policy in destroying the two-state solution,” said Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Sunday’s development comes as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is set to travel to the region this week, where he is expected to visit an Israeli settlement in the West Bank— a stop previous U.S. secretaries of state have avoided. Palestinian officials, who have cut off ties with the Trump administration over its policies in favor of Israel, have denounced Pompeo’s planned visit. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh tweeted on Friday that this was a “dangerous precedent” that legalizes settlements.
Brian Reeves, a spokesman for Peace Now, said the move Sunday allows contractors to begin bidding on the tenders, a process that will conclude just days before Biden’s inauguration. Construction could then begin within months.
“This is a lethal blow to the prospects for peace,” Peace Now said in a statement, adding that Israel was “taking advantage of the final weeks of the Trump administration in order to set facts on the ground that will be exceedingly hard to undo in order to achieve peace.”
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem — areas Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war — for their future state. With nearly 500,000 settlers now living in the West Bank, and over 220,000 more in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians say the chances of establishing their state are quickly dwindling.
Israel views the entire city of Jerusalem as its eternal, undivided capital.
Much of Jerusalem is already blocked off from the West Bank by a series of checkpoints and the separation barrier. Israel has previously moved forward on plans to build in E1, another sensitive area east of Jerusalem that critics say, with Givat Hamatos, would block east Jerusalem off entirely from the West Bank.
After four years of Trump, whose policies were hugely favorable toward Israel and who shrugged at settlement building, Israel faces a new reality under Biden, who will likely restore the previous U.S. position that viewed settlements as illegitimate and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.
Under previous administrations, Israel held back on building plans in the most sensitive areas, including Givat Hamatos, amid opposition by both Washington and the international community, which saw such plans as dashing hopes for a contiguous Palestinian state.
But Israel has been emboldened under Trump, approving thousands of new settlement homes during his term, including in highly contested areas. Many of those plans are expected to break ground after Biden assumes the presidency.
With the Trump administration in its final weeks in office, Israel may be aiming to push ahead on contentious projects before Biden’s term starts, a move that could set it on the wrong foot with the new president.
When the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize relations with Israel, the Palestinians decried the move as a “betrayal” of both Jerusalem, where they hope to establish the capital of their future state, and the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the city’s holiest Muslim site.
But with Israel now courting wealthy Gulf tourists and establishing new air links to the major travel hubs of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Palestinians in east Jerusalem could soon see a tourism boon after months in which the coronavirus transformed the Holy City into a ghost town.
“There will be some benefits for the Palestinian sector of tourism, and this is what I’m hoping for,” said Sami Abu-Dayyeh, a Palestinian businessman in east Jerusalem who owns four hotels and a tourism agency. “Forget about politics, we have to survive.”
Palestinian leaders have sharply rejected the recent decisions by the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan to establish ties with Israel because they severely weakened a longstanding Arab consensus that recognition only be extended in return for Palestinian statehood.
The Palestinians hope to establish a state including east Jerusalem and the West Bank, territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Arab support, seen as a key form of leverage in decades of on-again, off-again peace negotiations, now appears to be evaporating, leaving the Palestinians arguably weaker and more isolated than at any point in recent history.
In a striking development last week, a delegation of Israeli settlers visited the Emirates to discuss business opportunities. The Palestinians view settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem as the main obstacle to peace, and most of the international community considers them to be illegal.
But the prospect of expanded religious tourism could end up benefiting Israelis and Palestinians alike, as wealthy Gulf tourists and Muslim pilgrims from further afield take advantage of new air links and improved relations to visit Al-Aqsa and other holy sites.
Israel considers all of Jerusalem to be its capital, and its Jerusalem Municipality is organizing conferences and seminars to help tourism operators market the city to Gulf travelers.
“I’m very excited because I think it opens us up to a new era of Muslim tourism that we never really had,” said Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor of Jerusalem. “Even though we have peace with Jordan and Egypt, I’ve never really seen any Egyptian tourists or Jordanian tourists because the peace wasn’t a warm peace.”
Hassan-Nahoum, who recently visited the Emirates and is a co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council, said the municipality is reaching out to local Arab tour operators to ensure the benefits extend to all.
“You have mixed feelings,” she said. “Some of them are a little bit suspicious, (but) most of them understand that this is going to be incredibly prosperous for them, because ultimately they’re Arab speaking and so they have, I think, a unique advantage.”
Abu-Dayyeh expects up to 28 flights a day arriving in Tel Aviv from Dubai and Abu Dhabi, global travel hubs for long-haul carriers Emirates and Etihad, making it easier for travelers from the Far East and South America to reach the Holy Land.
He’s confident Palestinian operators will be able to compete. “We’re on the ground here and we’ve been giving this service for many years, for hundreds of years,” he said.
Other Palestinians appear to be more skeptical. More than a dozen Palestinian shop owners in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is largely shut down because of the coronavirus, declined to comment on the push for Gulf tourism, saying it was too politically sensitive.
There are also concerns that an Israeli push to promote tourism to Al-Aqsa could heighten tensions.
The hilltop esplanade in the Old City, home to the Al-Aqsa mosque and the iconic Dome of the Rock shrine, is the third holiest site in Islam. It is also the holiest site for Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount because it was the location of the two biblical temples in ancient times.
The site is a raw nerve in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and tensions have soared in recent years as religious and nationalist Jews have visited in ever-larger numbers, escorted by the Israeli police.
Last month a delegation of Emirati officials visited the site, entering through a gate normally used by Israelis and under an Israeli security escort. A small group of Palestinians heckled them. In August, Palestinian demonstrators burned a portrait of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan near the Dome of the Rock.
Officials from the Waqf, the Jordanian religious body that oversees the mosque compound, declined to comment on Israel’s efforts to promote Gulf tourism to the site, underscoring the political sensitivities.
Ikrema Sabri, the imam who leads Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa, said any visits must be coordinated with the Waqf so that they do not advance any Israeli claim to sovereignty over the site. The Palestinians have long feared that Israel intends to take over the site or partition it. The Israeli government says it is committed to the status quo.
“Any visitor from outside Palestine must coordinate with the Waqf,” Sabri said. “But any visitor from the side of the occupation, we do not welcome or accept them.”
He acknowledged that the visiting Emiratis may have been unaware of the complex arrangement and said the heckling was a “reaction” by individuals to them entering with Israeli security.
“If they come to do business with the occupation, they are free. But when they come to Al-Aqsa, they must come in coordination with the Islamic Waqf,” he said.
Hassan-Nahoum, the deputy mayor, said authorities are currently seeking recommendations from security companies to ensure that Emirati and other pilgrims can visit the site safely.
“I don’t think it’s going to raise too many tensions,” she said. “What I want is for the average Emirati tourist to have a pleasant experience of going and praying at Al-Aqsa for the first time.”
Bahrain’s Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, one of the world’s longest-serving prime ministers who led his island nation’s government for decades and survived the 2011 Arab Spring protests that demanded his ouster over corruption allegations, died on Wednesday. He was 84.
Bahrain’s state-run news agency announced his death, saying he had been receiving treatment at the Mayo Clinic in the United States, without elaborating. The Mayo Clinic declined to comment.
Prince Khalifa’s power and wealth could be seen everywhere in this small nation off the coast of Saudi Arabia that is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet. His official portrait hung for decades on walls alongside the country’s ruler. He had his own private island where he met foreign dignitaries, complete with a marina and a park that had peacocks and gazelle roam its grounds.
The prince represented an older style of Gulf leadership, one that granted patronage and favors for support of the Sunni Al Khalifa family. That style would be challenged in the 2011 protests by the island’s Shiite majority and others, who demonstrated against him over long-running corruption allegations surrounding his rule.
Though less powerful and frailer in recent years, his machinations still drew attention in the kingdom as a new generation now jostles for power.
“Khalifa bin Salman represented the old guard in more ways than just age and seniority,” said Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Washington-based Arab Gulf States Institute. “He represented an old social understanding rooted in royal privilege and expressed through personal patronage.”
Bahrain’s Royal Court announced a week of official mourning, with a burial coming after the return of his body. State television aired a recitation of Quranic verses, showing a black-and-white image of the prince.
Late on Wednesday, Bahrain’s state-run news agency initially announced Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa would lead the Council of Ministers, typically the job of the island’s prime minister. It later updated its report to directly name the crown prince as prime minister, becoming only the country’s second premier since its 1971 independence.
The crown prince had been trying to strip away Prince Khalifa’s control of Bahrain’s economy for years prior, with the apparent approval of his father, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
Prince Khalifa was born into the Al Khalifa dynasty that for more than two centuries has ruled Bahrain, an island in the Persian Gulf whose name in Arabic means the “two seas.” The son of Bahrain’s former ruler, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa who ruled from 1942 to 1961, the prince learned governance at his father’s side as the island remained a British protectorate.
Prince Khalifa’s brother, Sheikh Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, took power in 1961 and served as monarch when Bahrain gained its independence from Britain in 1971. Under an informal arrangement, Sheikh Isa handled the island’s diplomacy and ceremonial duties while Prince Khalifa ran the government and economy.
The years that followed saw Bahrain develop rapidly as it sought to move beyond its dependence on dwindling oil reserves. Manama at that time served as what Dubai in the United Arab Emirates ultimately became, a regional financial, service and tourism hub. The opening of the King Fahd Causeway in 1986 gave the island nation its first land link with its rich and powerful neighbor, Saudi Arabia, and offered an escape for Westerners in the kingdom who wanted to enjoy Bahrain’s alcohol-soaked nightclubs and beaches.
But Prince Khalifa increasingly saw his name entangled in corruption allegations, such as a major foreign corruption practices case against aluminum producer Alcoa over using a London-based middleman to facilitate bribes for Bahraini officials. Alcoa agreed to pay $384 million in fines to the U.S. government to settle the case in 2014.
The U.S. Embassy in Manama similarly had its own suspicions about Prince Khalifa.
“I believe that Shaikh Khalifa is not wholly a negative influence,” former U.S. Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann wrote in a 2004 cable released by WikiLeaks. “While certainly corrupt he has built much of modern Bahrain.”
Those corruption allegations fueled discontent, particularly among Bahrain’s Shiite majority who still today complain of discrimination by the government. In February 2011, protesters inspired by Arab Spring demonstrations across the Mideast filled the streets and occupied the capital Manama’s Pearl Roundabout to demand political reforms and a greater say in the country’s future.
While some called for a constitutional monarchy, many others pressed for the removal of the long-ruling prime minister and other members of the Sunni royal family altogether, including King Hamad.
At one point during the height of the unrest in March 2011, thousands of protesters besieged the prime minister’s office while officials met inside, demanding that Prince Khalifa step down over corruption allegations and an earlier, deadly crackdown on the demonstrations. Protesters also took to waving one Bahraini dinar notes over allegations Prince Khalifa bought the land on which Bahrain’s Financial Harbour development sits for just a single dinar.
Robert Gates, a former U.S. secretary of defense under President Barack Obama, wrote in his memoirs that he urged the king at the time to force Prince Khalifa from the premiership, describing him as “disliked by nearly everyone but especially the Shia.”
Bahraini officials soon crushed the protests with the backing of troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A government-sponsored report into the protests and crackdown later described security forces beating detainees and forcing them to kiss pictures of King Hamad and Prince Khalifa.
Low-level unrest continued in the years that followed, with Shiite protesters frequently clashing with riot police. Shiite militant groups, whom Bahrain’s government allege receive support from Iran, planted bombs that killed and wounded several members of the country’s security forces.
But while other hard-line members of the Al Khalifa family actively pushed for a confrontation with Shiites, Prince Khalifa maintained contacts with those the government opposed. Even with his influence waning, he called Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, in 2019 during the holy month of Ramadan despite Bahrain being one of four Arab nations boycotting Doha in a political dispute.
“Khalifa bin Salman could and did work with both Sunni and Shia, especially through his relations with Bahrain’s business community,” Diwan said. “He brought this same personalistic approach to relations with other Gulf monarchs, and was genuinely uncomfortable with the new politics exemplified by coarse attacks on the Qatari leadership.”
Slowly though, Prince Khalifa’s influence waned as he faced unexplained health problems. He was admitted to hospital in November 2015 but was later released. He also traveled to southeast Asia for medical appointments. In late November 2019, he traveled to Germany for undisclosed medical treatments, remaining there for months.
In September, a U.S. Air Force C-17 flying hospital flew from Germany to Rochester, Minnesota, following by a royal Bahraini aircraft. While U.S. and Bahraini officials declined to comment on the flights, it came just after America offered the same care to Kuwait’s ruling emir just before his death.
Prince Khalifa was married and has three surviving children, sons Ali and Salman and daughter Lulwa. Another son, Mohammed, died previously.