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Israel pushes for Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia amid stalled normalisation

Israel presses for direct flights to Saudi Arabia after Riyadh's overtures to Iran and Hamas leaves it out in the cold
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen addresses at a press conference after talks with his German counterpart at the Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany, on 28 February 2023 (AFP)

Israel is pushing Saudi Arabia to allow Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to fly directly to the kingdom to perform the Hajj and Umrah religious pilgrimages, a potential step towards normalising relations when progress has recently stalled.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said on Wednesday that the country was following up on an earlier request to allow the flights.

"This issue is under discussion. I cannot tell you if there is any progress," he said in an interview with Israel's Army Radio. "But with that, I am optimistic that we can advance peace with Saudi Arabia."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put expanding ties with Saudi Arabia at the forefront of his new government when it came to power last year. In December, he took to Saudi Arabian state television to claim that normalisation was key to peace between Israel and Palestine. 

Last summer, Israel and Saudi Arabia appeared to be inching closer to a series of deals that could set the stage for the future establishment of official diplomatic relations.

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On his visit to the kingdom in July, US President Joe Biden announced a deal between Israel, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to transfer control of the Red Sea islands Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, with Israel’s approval.

In return, Saudi Arabia allowed Israeli airlines to fly over its airspace. Before, only Israeli flights to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain could fly over the kingdom, as well as Air India flights to and from Israel.

But progress appears to have slowed. The Red Sea island transfer has been held up over Egyptian concerns, Axios reported. In January, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister said the kingdom would not normalise relations with Israel until Palestinians are granted statehood.

Saudi Arabia effectively obstructed an earlier plan to allow Cohen to attend a UN conference in the kingdom by refusing to  "seriously discuss" his security detail, according to an Axios report in March.

Saudi's Hamas and Iran outreach 

Meanwhile, tensions in the occupied West Bank have been running at a boilerplate since Israeli forces conducted a series of raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque in occupied East Jerusalem. The assaults were strongly denounced by Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia.

Netanyahu negotiated the 2020 Abraham Accords which saw Israel establish ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan with US backing. However, analysts have told Middle East Eye the Israeli prime minister's reliance on far-right allies in his new government complicates efforts to extend the accords.

Netanyahu's far-right allies complicate expansion of Abraham Accords
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Riyadh has expressed a willingness to engage with Israel but is asking the US for security guarantees and help on its nuclear programme in return.

More recently, Saudi Arabia’s decision to re-establish ties with Iran in a deal brokered by China was the latest blow to Israel’s efforts to court Riyadh and isolate Tehran.

The thaw in Iran-Saudi ties has scrambled the region’s geopolitical chess board.

Riyadh is now looking to strike peace deals with Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen and re-establish contact with Hamas, the group which governs the besieged Gaza Strip and which the US and Israel label a terrorist organisation.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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