Hajj flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia included in talks to improve ties

Discussions are under way on a deal that would allow Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to fly directly to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj and Umrah religious pilgrimages, according to people familiar with the matter.

The initiative is one of several being discussed ahead of US president Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia next month, all with the aim of helping the former foes inch toward more normal ties.

With Washington’s help, Israel and Saudi Arabia are also discussing expanding overflight rights for planes coming 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 those deals are further along than that on direct flights for religious pilgrims, which is less likely to come to fruition, the people said.

“We, of course, support broadening and deepening Arab-Israeli ties. But this is not the primary focus of the president’s trip, which includes a broad agenda of engagements with over a dozen counterparts from across the Middle East region,” the US National Security Council said.

An official from Israel’s prime minister’s office declined to comment. The Saudi government’s media office did not respond to queries.

In addition to what would be bilateral actions from Israel and Saudi Arabia, the US is also discussing integrating Israel more into the regional security architecture under the auspices of US Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East. As of last year the grouping also includes Israel.

Israel’s defence minister Benny Gantz last week briefed Israeli lawmakers on a US-led effort to integrate the air defences of regional powers to better defend against attacks from Iran. US officials and people familiar with the talks said the aim was to make it easier for different powers’ radar systems to communicate with each other.

All of the discussions come ahead of Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia next month, with much of the focus on the Saudi stop that includes a summit with Arab leaders. Biden will also hold a much-anticipated meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who he has kept at arm’s length over the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Russia’s war in Ukraine and high oil prices have created the conditions for Biden’s trip. After once vowing to make Saudi Arabia a pariah state he had changed course, and progress on normalisation could help to justify the about-face, analysts said.

“It’s clear that the Saudi-Israel dimension is integral to the trip. And it provides the president with a certain prism by which to say he is making the trip,” said David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Israel normalised relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020 under the Donald Trump-brokered Abraham Accords. Israel and Saudi Arabia have no formal relations but maintain quiet security and intelligence ties.

Israel has sought the capacity for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to fly directly to Saudi Arabia to perform the hajj. About 18 per cent of Israel’s population is Muslim and 6,000 Palestinians with Israeli nationality perform the hajj each year, according to Israeli media reports.

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 had been a 1,000-mile bus ride.

Direct flights for religious pilgrims would build a bridge between former foes. Trump made history when as president he flew from Saudi Arabia to Israel and Biden will do so again when he flies the opposite way.

Further along are talks that would allow any plane operating from Tel Aviv airport to fly over Saudi Arabia. Currently only certain flights going to the UAE and Bahrain can use Saudi airspace and other commercial flights leaving from Israel are restricted from doing so. Air India is also allowed to use Saudi airspace for its flight from Tel Aviv to New Delhi.

The US is also working to finalise a deal in which Saudi Arabia would take full control of two strategic Red Sea Islands from Egypt, which needs Israel’s approval under its 1979 peace treaty with Cairo.

Israel and Saudi Arabia have drawn closer in recent years, largely on shared concerns over Iran. A next step would be making those ties more public, which is likely to require at least some action on Israel’s part to address its long-running conflict with the Palestinians.

“Most of the Israeli-Saudi relationship is under the table: now it’s about how they will calibrate bringing what’s under the table above board,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former adviser to 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

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