Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) spoke on the phone twice in recent weeks, with Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani facilitating the calls, a foreign diplomatic source said Monday.
Netanyahu and MBS spoke before and after last week’s Arab League meeting to discuss the possibility of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
No progress was made in the conversations, and MBS rejected a request from Netanyahu to meet, the source said.
‘Optimism’ in Jerusalem about direct flights to Saudi Arabia
The leaders did not discuss the possibility of direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, this year, but according to an Israeli diplomatic source, “There is optimism” in Jerusalem about the continuing efforts.
The Saudis presented a list of demands for Israeli concessions vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the N12 news site reported. Those demands include allowing the Palestinian security apparatus to be strengthened at the expense of the IDF in Judea and Samaria, the report said. MBS also requested Palestinian security control over al-Aqsa Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, while the Western Wall would remain under full Israeli control.
Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Zayani spoke on the phone on Sunday night, the Foreign Ministry said.
Last week, Cohen told The Jerusalem Post normalization with Saudi Arabia was “not a matter of if, but of when. We and Saudi Arabia have the same interests.”
He said White House Coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa Brett McGurk and Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security Amos Hochstein had spoken to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) about peace with Israel during their visit to Jeddah this month.
Eli Cohen: Saudi-Israeli normalization come come in next six months to year
Normalization with Saudi Arabia could come within 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, Cohen told N12 Saturday night.
A source with connections to the Saudi leadership said MBS wants to be able to say that he did something for the Palestinians and to strengthen Riyadh’s security cooperation with Washington in conjunction with normalization.
“The Palestinian issue was and remains the central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the kingdom’s priorities,” MBS said at the Arab League summit in Jeddah last week.
“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 said.
Jerusalem remains hopeful for a breakthrough in talks ahead of the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, 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 some 2,700 Israelis traveled to Mecca, and about 4,500 are expected to do so this year. In the past, most traveled via Jordan.
While it would likely be too short notice to make security arrangements to allow Palestinians onto the flights, MBS views that as part of the deal for direct flights, the source with ties to Riyadh said.
Last year, Qatar allowed direct flights from Israel for the World Cup, stating publicly 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 direct flights “would be an excellent bridge towards the next phase of normalization talks.”
“There have been several overtures towards Israel by the Saudis over recent months, such as overflights [for Israeli airlines] more particularly,” he 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.”
Israel has sought direct flights to Jeddah for the pilgrimage to Mecca since 2018 and made a concerted diplomatic effort when US President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia last July. Riyadh permitted Israeli commercial flights to cross its airspace at the time, but not the new flights.
Biden said he welcomed “related steps under discussion to include direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Hajj on approved carriers.”