'Circumstances have chilled enthusiasm,' official says

Israel’s efforts to forge Saudi ties said on ice as tensions with Palestinians spike

Plan for direct Tel Aviv-Mecca flight for Hajj pilgrimage reportedly shelved as Riyadh takes issue with Netanyahu government’s actions; relations with UAE also take a hit

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises Muslim voters that he will ensure that there are direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia, March 23, 2021 (screen capture)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises Muslim voters that he will ensure that there are direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia, March 23, 2021 (screen capture)

Saudi Arabia’s interest in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel has cooled in recent months amid ongoing violence in the West Bank and clashes at the flashpoint Temple Mount site, US media reported this week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prioritized including the kingdom in the 2020 Abraham Accords upon his return to office in December, but Riyadh and other Muslim nations have become reluctant to openly advance a deal due to spiking Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Israeli and Gulf officials told The Wall Street Journal.

Notably, a plan brokered by Washington to schedule direct flights from Tel Aviv to Mecca, allowing Israel’s Muslim citizens to more easily take part in the sacred Hajj pilgrimage, is unlikely to be finalized, Israeli officials told the paper.

“Circumstances have chilled enthusiasm,” an Israeli official said. Discreet security, intelligence and business ties are nevertheless ongoing, WSJ added.

The US-brokered Abraham Accords saw the kingdom’s neighbors — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — establish full diplomatic ties with Israel.

In 2022, hopes for deepening ties with Riyadh peaked when they allowed Israeli civilian flights to pass over its airspace.

Policemen detain a Palestinian man at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound following clashes that erupted during the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan in Jerusalem on April 5, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Since the establishment of Netanyahu’s hardline right-wing government, the Saudis have issued several condemnations against Israel over West Bank settlement expansion, violent confrontations between Israeli troops and Palestinians, and called comments by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to “wipe out” the town of Huwara “racist and irresponsible.”

The comments were made in the wake of a terror attack in February that killed two Israeli brothers in the West Bank town, which was followed by a violent rampage by settlers in Huwara in which a Palestinian was killed.

Shortly before being sworn in, Netanyahu said a normalization deal with the Saudis could serve as a “quantum leap” for long-moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

The two countries were also interested in aligning against their common regional rival Iran. However, a recent rapproachment deal between Riyadh and Tehran is further complicating efforts.

“Saudi normalization right now is on ice,” Sanam Vakil, director of the Chatham House think tank’s Middle East and North Africa Program, told WSJ. “There was too much hope that it would happen quickly,” she added.

Relations with the UAE are also being challenged by recent events, the newspaper noted.

Last month, senior UAE official Khaldoon Al Mubarak met with Netanyahu and reportedly warned him that the government’s conduct was straining ties between the countries.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan pose on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords, September 15, 2020. (AP/Alex Brandon)

Al Mubarak was dispatched by UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, to whom he is a senior adviser, in order to convey a message to the Israeli government concerning its treatment of Palestinians, the Kan public broadcaster reported at the time.

“The direction of this government goes completely against the Abraham Accords,” Mubarak was quoted as having told Netanyahu.

Also, Netanyahu was set for his first official visit to Abu Dhabi in January, but Al Nahyan canceled the trip after National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visited the Temple Mount, which the UAE denounced as the minister’s “storming of Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard.”

The Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary, is the holiest place for Jews as the site of the two ancient Jewish temples, and Al-Aqsa is the third-holiest shrine in Islam.

Israel has vowed repeatedly to maintain the status quo at the site, whereby Jews are allowed to visit there — under numerous restrictions and only during limited hours — but not pray. However, Jews have increasingly been allowed to quietly pray there, while Palestinians have instigated violence at the site and unilaterally designated more parts of the site for Muslim prayer.

Last week, police said hundreds of Palestinians barricaded themselves inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque with explosive devices, rocks, and fireworks in order to target Israeli officers and civilians. Police said they were left with no choice but to enter the mosque overnight Tuesday-Wednesday, which then sparked intense clashes with the Palestinians inside.

Police managed to overpower the rioters but several people inside captured footage of officers beating and apprehending Palestinians, which went viral on social media and sparked massive international uproar. Hamas terrorists also responded by firing several barrages of rockets at Israel from both Lebanon and Gaza, leading to Israeli retaliatory airstrikes.

Ash Obel contributed to this report.

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