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Secret Meeting in Desert Between Israeli, Saudi Leaders Failed to Reach


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia—When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew into Saudi Arabia last weekend for a secret nighttime rendezvous with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, he and his allies in Washington hoped to win assurances that a normalization deal between the two longtime Middle East rivals was in reach, Saudi advisers and U.S. officials said.

Instead, after the meeting the Israeli leader returned home empty-handed and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Saudi Arabia at the time as well, watched as a potential capstone to the Trump administration’s efforts to reorder the politics of the region and build a bulwark against Iran slipped from his grasp, the advisers and officials said.

U.S. officials had hoped to build on the momentum of the so-called Abraham Accords, which formalized ties between Israel and two other Gulf Arab states, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, and remove the biggest remaining barrier to Israel’s diplomatic integration into the region—a central part of President Trump’s effort to contain Tehran.

But Prince Mohammed pulled back from a deal, according to the Saudi advisors and U.S. officials, largely because of the U.S. election result. Saudi aides said the prince, eager to build ties with the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden, was reluctant to take the step now, when he could use a deal later to help cement relations with the new American leader.

Mr. Biden has said he also favors normalization deals between Arab states and Israel. He has taken a tougher stance on Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record, in particular the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And a deal struck under the aegis of the new president could put relations between the Biden administration and Riyadh on a surer footing, Saudi aides said.



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