Discussions are underway on a deal that would allow Palestinians with Israeli nationality to travel directly to Saudi Arabia to perform the religious Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, according to people familiar with the matter.
The initiative is one of many being discussed ahead of US President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia next month, all with the aim of helping former foes move towards more normal ties.
With help from Washington, Israel and Saudi Arabia are also discussing expanding overflight rights for planes from Israel and a deal that would see the transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, a move that requires Israel’s consent. Both of these agreements are more advanced than the one on direct flights for religious pilgrims, which is less likely to materialize, the people said.
“We support, of course, the broadening and deepening of Arab-Israeli relations. But this is not the main objective of the president’s trip, which includes an extensive program of engagements with more than a dozen ‘counterparts throughout the Middle East region,’ the US National Security Council said.
An official in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment. The Saudi government media office did not respond to questions.
In addition to what would be bilateral actions by Israel and Saudi Arabia, the US is also considering further integrating Israel into the regional security architecture under the auspices of US Central Command, which oversees US forces. in the Middle-East. As of last year, the group also includes Israel.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz briefed Israeli lawmakers last week on a US-led effort to integrate the air defenses of regional powers to better defend against attacks from Iran. US officials and people familiar with the talks said the goal was to facilitate communication between radar systems of different powers.
All talks precede Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia next month, with much of the focus on the Saudi stop which includes a summit with Arab leaders. Biden will also hold a much-anticipated meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom he kept away from the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Russia’s war in Ukraine and high oil prices created the conditions for Biden’s trip. After once vowing to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state, he had changed course, and progress in normalization could help justify the about-face, analysts said.
“It is clear that the Israeli-Saudi dimension is an integral part of the journey. And that provides the president with a certain prism to say he’s making the trip,” said David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Israel normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020 under the Abraham Accords brokered by Donald Trump. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have formal relations but maintain discreet security and intelligence ties.
Israel has sought to allow Palestinians with Israeli nationality to travel directly to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj. About 18% of Israel’s population is Muslim, and 6,000 Palestinians with Israeli nationality perform the hajj every year, according to Israeli media.
In recent years, Palestinian citizens of Israel have been able to fly to Saudi Arabia for the hajj but must stop in Amman. Previously, the only option was a 1,000 mile bus ride.
Direct flights for religious pilgrims would bridge old enemies. Trump made history when as president he flew from Saudi Arabia to Israel and Biden will do so again when he flies in the opposite direction.
Further on, talks would allow any aircraft operating from Tel Aviv airport to fly over Saudi Arabia. Currently, only certain flights to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain can use Saudi airspace and other commercial flights from Israel cannot. Air India is also allowed to use Saudi airspace for its flight from Tel Aviv to New Delhi.
The United States is also working to finalize a deal in which Saudi Arabia would take full control of two strategic Red Sea islands from Egypt, which requires Israel’s approval under its 1979 peace treaty. with Cairo.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have grown closer in recent years, largely over shared concerns about Iran. A next step would be to make those ties more public, which will likely require at least some action from Israel to resolve its longstanding conflict with the Palestinians.
“Most of the Saudi-Israeli relationship is under the table: now it’s about how they’re going to calibrate what’s under the table above the table,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former adviser to the Democratic and Republican Secretaries of State. “It’s a very transactional arrangement.”
Additional reporting by James Shotter in Jerusalem and Samer Al-Atrush in Dubai