- The US helped broker a meeting between the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia, according to two officials briefed on the matter.
- The two sources — one Israeli and one European — said the meeting was a reward for the audacious assassination in August of an Al Qaeda target in Iran.
- The secret meeting, they said, was meant to pave the way for Saudi Arabia to formally recognize Israel.
- However, it fell short of its aims and Saudi Arabia publicly denied that a meeting took place.
- Insider's sources characterized the move as a bid by Trump officials hoping to lock in their foreign policy choices before President-elect Joe Biden takes office.
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US officials organized a meeting between Israeli prime minister and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia as payback for assassinating a leading member of Al Qaeda, intelligence sources told Insider.
Two officials, one from Israel and another who has worked in Saudi Arabia on behalf of a European nation, described the backdrop to the secret meeting during the recent G20 summit.
It saw Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu meet crown prince Mohammed bin Salman — an extraordinary milestone for two nations with a decades-long history of hostility.
The meeting was secret, but became public after details were published by Israeli media outlets.
After the reports, Saudi Arabia strongly denied that a meeting took place. But the two officials confirmed that it did.
Both had been briefed on what happened, and requested anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters.
They characterized the meeting as a reward from US officials for doing them a favor: the assassination in August of Abu Mohammed al Masri, a senior Al Qaeda figure living in Iran.
Insider noted previously that the operation would be difficult to carry off without striking some kind of deal with the US.
Hence the G20 side-meeting. According to The New York Times, the meeting was a way to announce that Saudi Arabia would move to formally recognize Israel, after similar agreements with Sudan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
The Israeli official who spoke to Insider said: "This was supposed to be a final step in the process."
The official advises Netanyahu's coalition partner and political rival Bennie Gantz.
"[Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo had cut a deal with the Israelis over Masri, Israel would do this to help the Americans eliminate a terrorist, while drawing attention to these Al Qaeda guys still in Iran," said the official.
"The plan was for Bahrain, Sudan and UAE to normalize [with Israel], then produce the assassination of Masri as proof that Iran was working with Al Qaeda. The Saudis would move to normalize as Trump got re-elected and there would be some sort of regional confrontation with Iran."
"But Trump lost, the Saudis took the meeting and then acted livid [that] it leaked and Bibi [Netanyahu's nickname] had to fly home knowing the Saudis were done with Trump."
The official said that the Saudis were left "unwilling to make any more moves until the new administration had arrived and [new US] officials could speak with Saudi's diplomats."
When asked if the plan was ever viable, the Israeli official laughed and said it "was never going to work."
He blamed "Pompeo and Bibi and a chorus of idiots and charlatans working all sides of the issue," and said the true aim was to sour relations with Iran so far that President-elect Joe Biden would have little scope to repair them.
A second official, who was until recently stationed in Riyadh by a European intelligence agency, concurred that the meeting was a reward from the US, but said it failed to achieve its goal of an explicit recognition.
"The Americans owed the Israelis this meeting," he said, "and certainly Pompeo and [Jared] Kushner wanted to get the Saudis to sign on the line."
The official said that Pompeo and Kushner overestimated the extent to which Saudi rulers would be willing to compromise their relations with the incoming Biden administration.
"It's quite possible [the Saudis] took the meeting knowing they'd have to reject that final step of recognition and that it would leak.
"Arab regimes always lie to their people, so by saying the meeting did not happen, even as everyone knows it did, the Saudis get to tell the rest of the Arab and Muslim world 'It was just a meeting, we are going to deny it because no deal was made.'"
"So they get to both deny it and prepare their own people for the fact that going forward, the Saudis and Israelis will be talking."
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