Likud minister Karhi, MK Bitan set to visit next week

In first, Israeli minister leads official delegation to Saudi Arabia

Haim Katz says tourism ‘a bridge between nations’ while attending UN World Tourism Organization event, as Jerusalem and Riyadh seem to edge closer to US-brokered normalization pact

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Tourism Minister Haim Katz poses next to a UNWTO poster in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on September 26, 2023. (Courtesy: Haim Kaitz)
Tourism Minister Haim Katz poses next to a UNWTO poster in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on September 26, 2023. (Courtesy: Haim Kaitz)

Tourism Minister Haim Katz arrived Tuesday in Saudi Arabia for a United Nations conference, becoming the first Israeli minister to lead a delegation to the kingdom, according to his office.

“They received me very nicely, we landed in the afternoon, there were lots of people in the welcome committee, everybody looked the same, it was wonderful,” Katz told Israel’s Channel 12 later Tuesday.

Katz is on a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia as part of a United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) event that coincides with World Tourism Day on September 27.

“Tourism is a bridge between nations,” Katz said in a statement. “Cooperation in the field of tourism has the potential to bring hearts together, and economic progress.”

“I will work to advance cooperation, tourism and the foreign relations of Israel,” he said.

On Channel 12, from Riyadh, Katz declined to respond to a question on whether the Israeli flag will be flying at the tourism event in the capital, implying that the fact he was allowed to lead an official delegation was enough of a concession from the Saudis.

Katz told Ynet that the Israeli delegation’s arrival in Saudi Arabia was a “historic and exciting event.”

“After 48 years, Israel was chosen to lead a strategic delegation to [the event]. We were warmly received in the Riyadh by officials. I estimate that we will meet many delegations at the conference, those with whom we have relations, and, I estimate, also with those with who we don’t really,” he told Ynet.

Katz’s visit comes as Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to be edging closer to a normalization deal.

US President Joe Biden’s administration is actively engaging Riyadh and Jerusalem to try to broker a normalization deal between the two countries. As part of the framework, Saudi Arabia is also asking the US for a major mutual defense pact and significant arms deals, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to use a red marker on a map of ‘The New Middle East,’ as he addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Friday, September 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations in his address last Friday that Israel was “on the cusp” of a historic deal with Saudi Arabia.

Earlier in the week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Fox News that “every day we get closer” to his country normalizing ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process and declaring that Saudi Arabia will have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

Earlier this month, an Israeli delegation of nine staffers flew to Saudi Arabia as observers for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. The delegation was led by the head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority and included diplomats, according to an Israeli official.

Next week, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi will land in Saudi Arabia on Monday evening to attend the Universal Postal Union’s 2023 Extraordinary Congress in Riyadh, his office told The Times of Israel. Karhi will speak at the UN conference, which runs from Sunday to Thursday next week.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi during a discussion and a vote in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on March 1, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Karhi is flying through another country in the region, and has his visa already. He will bring a small delegation with him to the kingdom, which does not recognize Israel.

Karhi, a religious Jew, will not have a porch at his hotel on which to build a Sukkah during the Sukkot holiday next week, but will bring a lulav and etrog with him.

Knesset Economic Affairs Committee chairman David Bitan is also set to visit Saudi Arabia next week, according to Hebrew media reports.

Like Katz, both Karhi and Bitan are members of the ruling Likud party.

The delegation from Israel attends the UNESCO Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh on September 11, 2023. (Rania Sanjar/AFP)

Israel reportedly backed off its attempts to have Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch attend the conference after the Saudis introduced obstacles during the visa process.

In March, Axios reported that Saudi Arabia barred Cohen from leading a delegation to the UN World Tourism Organization conference. Cohen was unable to travel after the Saudis refused to discuss security arrangements, according to unnamed Israeli officials.

In July, a team of Israeli gamers was allowed into Saudi Arabia to participate in the video game version of the FIFA World Cup.

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