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Biden unfazed by Saudi denial of advancement in Israel ties — senior US official

Riyadh was never going to admit allowing Israeli overflights was step toward normalization, official says; but Western diplomat fears Israeli reporter’s Mecca trip may harm effort

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)
In this photo released by the Saudi Royal Palace, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, welcomes US President Joe Biden to Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

The Biden administration was not surprised or concerned by Saudi Arabia’s assertion last week that its decision to open its airspace to all civilian planes was not a precursor to normalization with Israel, a senior US official told The Times of Israel.

The July 15 announcement from Riyadh of opened airspace was made hours before Joe Biden became the first US president to travel directly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah in order to attend a summit with Mideast leaders, and was characterized by Biden and Prime Minister Yair Lapid as a “first step” toward formal Israel-Saudi ties.

But Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan poured cold water on the notion during a July 17 press conference less than an hour after Biden left Jeddah. “This has nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel,” he said. “It’s not in any way a precursor to any further steps.”

The Saudi minister’s remarks appeared to dent Biden’s efforts during the trip to advance Israel’s integration in the region.

However, the senior administration official insisted that Washington was unnerved by the remarks.

“The way the Saudis do things [is that] they move forward [and] then look at the public reaction [to the steps they’ve taken],” the official told ToI on Thursday. “They would never say ‘yes, this is a step toward normalization,’ especially at the foreign minister level.”

US President Joe Biden waves before boarding Air Force One to depart Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 15, 2022. (Ariel Schalit/Pool/AFP)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may be another story, though. He told The Atlantic in March that Israel could be a “potential ally.” However, his aging father King Salman is believed to maintain a veto over full normalization with Israel sans a two-state solution, which is expected to remain the policy as long as the 86-year-old monarch is in the picture.

Commenting on Prince Faisal’s effort to detach the decision to open Saudi skies from Israel, a Western diplomat argued that this was “futile,” as the Jewish state was the only country whose airliners had been barred from Riyadh’s airspace before the announcement.

Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington analyst Hussein Ibish said the Saudi announcement “is definitely about Israel and nothing else,” but that Riyadh is trying to “play hard to get.”

Still, he cautioned against over-selling the move’s importance. “Everyone is spinning. The Americans are spinning that they made a breakthrough. The Israelis are spinning that they are now accepted by their good allies and close friends, the Saudis; and the Saudis are spinning that nothing has happened and there’s nothing to see here… until a Palestinian state is established.”

“What’s happening [are] meaningful but extremely minor measures that inch Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together but that are small enough that they don’t roil the politics of the kingdom or cause any headache for Saudi Arabia’s Arab regional role or Islamic global role,” Ibish added.

The senior US official declined to say whether Israeli reporter Gil Tamary’s decision to illegally sneak into the Muslim holy city of Mecca in order to film a TV segment from the site damaged efforts to normalize ties between Riyadh and Jerusalem. The official did criticize the action by the Channel 13 reporter though, saying that “we think that was a really reckless and disrespectful thing to do.”

Channel 13 reporter Gil Tamary reports from Mecca on July 17, 2022. The face of the man who assisted him is blurred in the background. (Screen capture/Channel 13)

Riyadh announced Friday that it had arrested the man who drove and helped Tamary sneak into Mecca, and unspecified proceedings were reportedly opened against the reporter himself, who is back in Israel.

The Western diplomat did go further though, saying the broadcast “may have long-term implications to the normalization effort.”

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council added that the US is aware of the incident and stressed that Tamary did not enter Saudi Arabia as part of Biden’s press delegation

“We recognize and deeply respect Mecca and its importance in the hearts of Muslims worldwide — including millions of American Muslims,” the spokesperson continued. “The United States respects all religions and promotes religious harmony.”

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