Israel is hopeful that it will be able to arrange direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, this year, in a further step towards normalization.
“There is optimism,” a diplomatic source said on Monday of the continuing efforts.
The remarks came after days of persistent reports on a breakthrough in talks ahead of the pilgrimage set to take place on June 26-July 1 this year.
Only Israeli Muslims would be allowed on the flights from Ben-Gurion and Ramon Airports, according to Maariv.
Last year 2,700 Israelis made their way to Mecca and about 4,500 are expected to do so. In the past, most traveled via Jordan.
While it would likely be too short notice for security arrangements to allow Palestinians onto the flights, Riyadh sees that as part of the deal for direct flights.
Last year, Qatar allowed direct flights from Israel for the World Cup, stating that they were for Palestinians as well, but no Palestinians actually flew to the games via Israel.
Senior Adviser to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies Rich Goldberg, who was in Saudi Arabia to meet with officials earlier this month, said that direct flights “would be an excellent bridge towards the next phase of normalization talks.
There have been several overtures by the Saudis over recent months, such as overflights [for Israeli airlines] more particularly,” Goldberg said. “Having direct flights for Muslims living in israel who want an easier way to get to Saudi Arabia for Hajj is a great way of building a bridge to Israel with direct benefit for Muslims living in Israel.”
Goldberg said there are “a lot of positive signals out of all capitals involved and [direct flights are] something that hopefully the parties can resolve in short order.”
FM Cohen says normalization with Saudi Arabia a matter of time
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told The Jerusalem Post last week that normalization with Saudi Arabia is “not a matter of if, but of when. We and Saudi Arabia have the same interests.”
White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security Amos Hochstein, spoke to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) about peace with Israel during their visit to Jeddah this month, Cohen said.
The foreign minister told N12 on Saturday night that normalization with Saudi Arabia could come in the next six months to a year, though senior Saudi officials have always said publicly that headway must be made between Israel and the Palestinians for Riyadh to take that step.
A source with connections to Saudi leadership said that MBS wants to be able to say that he did something for the Palestinians and to strengthen Riyad’s security cooperation with Washington in conjunction with normalization.
MBS said at the Arab League summit in Jeddah last week that "the Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the kingdom’s priorities."
"We will not delay in providing assistance to the Palestinian people in recovering their lands, restoring their legitimate rights and establishing an independent state on the 1967 borders with east Jerusalem as its capital,” he stated.
Israel has sought direct flights to Jeddah for the pilgrimage to Mecca since 2018, and made a concerted diplomatic effort last summer, when US President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia in July. Riyadh allowed Israeli commercial flights in its airspace at the time, but not the new flights.
Biden said that he welcomed “related steps under discussion to include direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Haj on approved carriers.”