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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif at a press conference on Nov. 18. Photo: Menahem Kahana/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled in secret Sunday to the city of Neom on Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coast for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli sources told me.

The latest: Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan on Monday denied the meeting took place — a signal that the Saudis may be unhappy with the leak or are at least trying to publicly distance themselves from the meeting. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has not denied the story.

What they're saying: “I have seen press reports about a purported meeting between the Crown Prince and Israeli officials during the recent visit by Secretary Pompeo. No such meeting occurred. The only officials present were American and Saudi," the Saudi foreign minister tweeted.

  • Several minutes later, Netanyahu was asked about the meeting by the coalition whip during a public Likud meeting in the Knesset. He responded: “I never commented on those issues and I will not start now. I can just say that I am working on broadening the circle of peace and I hope it will grow."
  • Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz, who was left in the dark about the trip to Saudi Arabia, referred to it as a fact during his party meeting in the Knesset and hinted Netanyahu leaked it for domestic political purposes.

Why it matters: Israel and Saudi Arabia have had a secret relationship for many years, but this is the first time such a high level meeting has been reported — though neither side confirmed it officially.

Driving the news: Data from online flight radar sites showed a private jet departing from Tel Aviv Sunday evening and flying directly to Neom. The jet returned to Israel after five hours on the ground.

  • The unusual flight coincided with a planned meeting between Pompeo and the Saudi crown prince, which was published on the secretary of state's schedule.

Between the lines: The Saudis, the Israelis and the Americans knew that the flight from Tel Aviv to Neom would be detected by plane spotters and likely lead to the exposing of the meeting.

  • According to Israeli sources, Netanyahu didn’t update in advance his coalition partners, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, about the trip. Both Gantz and Ashkenazi are Netanyahu’s political rivals.

Israeli sources told me the director of Mossad, Yossi Cohen, joined Netanyahu on the trip to Saudi Arabia.

  • Netanyahu's office didn’t comment on this story but didn’t deny it either.
  • After the news of the visit broke in the Israeli press, Netanyauh's social media adviser Topaz Luk tweeted: "While Benny Gantz is dealing with politics the Prime Minister is making peace."

Behind the scenes: The Israeli coronavirus cabinet was supposed to convene on Sunday evening. Netanyahu’s office announced on Saturday night that the meeting was postponed because more work needed to be done in advance.

  • This was a cover story. The real reason for postponing the cabinet meeting was Netanyahu's trip to Saudi Arabia, Israeli sources told me.

The big picture: Israel and Saudi Arabia are very concerned by the incoming Biden administration's stated goal of returning to the 2015 Iran deal.

  • Several hours before traveling to Saudi Arabia Sunday, Netanyahu said in a speech: "Thanks to our determined stand against the nuclearization of Iran, and to our opposition to the nuclear agreement with Iran, many Arab countries have fundamentally changed their approach to Israel."

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - World

Biden picks Rob Malley as envoy for Iran

Malley (L) during Iran deal negotiations in Vienna, 2015. Photo: Siamek Ebrahimi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Image

Rob Malley will serve as the Biden administration's special envoy for Iran, working out of the State Department, White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced on Friday.

Why it matters: Malley, a former Middle East adviser to Barack Obama, took part in the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal and is a strong supporter of a U.S. return to the agreement. Reports of his likely selection led to sharp criticism from opponents of the deal like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), while former colleagues from the Obama administration rallied to Malley's defense.

Journalism's two Americas

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

There's a sharp divide in American journalism between haves and have-nots. While national journalists covering tech and politics on the coasts reap the benefits of booming businesses and book deals, local media organizations, primarily newspapers, continue to shrink.

Why it matters: The disparate fortunes skew what gets covered, elevating big national political stories at the expense of local, community-focused news.

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