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Netanyahu, MBS concur on Iran, but normalization no closer

In their briefly secret meeting in Neom, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman agreed on the common threat from Iran, but did not make progress toward normalization.
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 28: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint statement in the East Room of the White House on January 28, 2020 in Washington, DC. The news conference was held to announce the Trump administration's plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

Israel’s military censors allowed local media outlets to report this week that Israel's leader had flown to Saudi Arabia and met there with senior officials. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on Nov. 22 with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a meeting arranged by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The censors would not have approved the news for publication without a green light from the office of the prime minister. Nonetheless, when Netanyahu was asked about it hours after the report surfaced at a meeting of his Likud party’s Knesset faction in Jerusalem, he said, “Over the years I have never addressed such things and I am not about to start doing it now.” His office declined to confirm the reports and his media adviser deleted the tweet he had posted hours earlier, broadly hinting at the secret visit.

Several developments appear to have occurred on the Riyadh-Washington-Jerusalem axis between the morning hours of Nov. 23, when the reports emerged, and Netanyahu’s coy response that afternoon. The Saudis may have been unhappy with the leak about the meeting or the sides might have agreed in advance on only semi-official public acknowledgement of the event, with no photo ops and fanfare. One thing is certain: The leadership in Riyadh is not ready yet for official, open relations with Israel or other normalization measures, still insisting on significant progress in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. It may come around in the future.

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