The reported visits come as Israel weighs changing the international status of two islands in the Red Sea, but ‘the road to normalized relations between the two countries is still a long one’, according to sources.
A number of senior Israeli officials secretly visited Saudi Arabia over the past decade, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz when he was the Israeli army’s chief of staff, signalling deepening covert relations between Israel and the Kingdom, the Israel Hayom daily reported on Sunday.
Ex-Mossad intelligence agency head Tamir Pardo, and former directors of the National Security Council Yossi Cohen and Meir Ben-Shabbat also travelled to the Gulf monarchy. Until now, such meetings took place on a covert basis, other than then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Saudi Arabia in November 2020, when he was accompanied by Cohen, who was Mossad chief at the time.
The revelation comes in light of the news that Israel is considering a Saudi request to change the international status of two islands in the Red Sea, officials said, bringing Israel and Saudi Arabia closer to their first public agreement.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have for years been conducting covert talks on diplomatic, security and business affairs. Senior Israeli officials, mainly related to defense issues, visit the kingdom from time to time. However, Saudi Arabia is not eager to formalize these relations, mainly due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to a source in the know, “the road to normalized relations between the two countries is still a long one.”
The deal being put together by the White House focuses on the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty. In 2017, Egypt and Saudi Arabia agreed that the islands would be returned to Riyadh, a move that was approved by the Egyptian parliament and Supreme Court. It also required Israeli approval, due to the terms of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
The U.S. imposed “boycott” on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, due to his involvement in the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, suspended some of the topics that were under discussion by the two countries. Israel assesses that the Americans wish to warm their relations with the Saudis, with President Biden possibly “pardoning” bin Salman. This comes on the backdrop of the global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine and Iran’s efforts to increase the amount of oil it sells, with the U.S. trying to make Saudi Arabia a more significant player by increasing its oil output.