The message Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s spokeswoman Shir Cohen sent to journalists on Saturday night seemed innocuous enough.
“In order for minister [Ze’ev] Elkin and Izhar Shay to complete their work on digital means [to trace the spread of COVID-19], including the legal aspects connected to the matter, the coronavirus cabinet will be postponed to Monday,” it read.
Those especially familiar with the statements coming out of the Prime Minister’s Office may have noted that there was something fishy about this one, in that it gave more advance notice and was more forthcoming than usual. But it wasn’t enough to raise much suspicion beyond grumbling about coronavirus policy.
It later became apparent that the statement was a cover story for something much more dramatic.
At about 5 p.m. on Sunday, a private jet belonging to Israeli businessman Udi Angel took off from Ben-Gurion Airport and landed in Neom, Saudi Arabia, a new city on the shores of the Red Sea meant to show off the Kingdom’s hi-tech capabilities. It returned to Israel shortly after midnight.
Several hours later, the news broke: Netanyahu had met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
There was no official announcement, but between the different Israeli media outlets and their sources, plus a couple of foreign outlets citing Saudi sources, as well, a picture started to form.
Netanyahu and MBS, as the crown prince is known, met for a few hours. They discussed Iran and the possibility of normalization between their countries, but did not make any major decisions.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry denied that MBS met with any Israeli officials together with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was reportedly present, as well. But they did not deny outright that there had been any meeting with Israelis.
The fact that this meeting took place is big news. Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic relations. The Saudis twice, in 1948 and 1973, sent troops to help other Arab countries wage war on Israel, and now the heir to the Saudi throne is meeting with the prime minister of Israel.
Of course, much has changed since then, the key shift being that Israel and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are on the same side of a division in the Middle East; they’re all threatened by Iran.
That is the backdrop against which the Abraham Accords were signed, and against which there is a fair chance that normalizations between Arab states and Israel will continue.
When the US was negotiating the Iran deal, it became an open secret in Washington that Israel’s and the UAE’s ambassadors were working together to try to convince the Obama administration to get tougher on Tehran and stop its nuclear program.