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Israel lauds Saudi decision to open skies as ‘first step’ toward normalization

Lapid thanks Biden for advancing process after Riyadh allows Israeli overflights; US president set to announce wider progress in Jeddah

Illustrative: Passengers watch aircraft on the tarmac as they wait for their flight at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 28, 2020.  (AP/Amr Nabil)
Illustrative: Passengers watch aircraft on the tarmac as they wait for their flight at the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on July 28, 2020. (AP/Amr Nabil)

Saudi Arabia’s announcement early Friday that it would open its airspace to Israeli aircraft on Friday was praised by Israeli leaders as a sign of a nascent normalization process between Jerusalem and Riyadh.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid welcomed the move as a “first step” toward relations with the Saudis and thanked US President Joe Biden, who is in the midst of a visit to the region, for his involvement in the process.

“This is the first official step in normalization with Saudi Arabia,” said Lapid. “I thank the Saudi leadership for the opening of Saudi airspace. This is only the first step.”

“We will continue to work on this with the required caution, for the benefit of Israel’s economy, security and citizens,” Lapid said in a statement.

Saudi Arabia’s civil aviation authority said in a tweeted statement that it was announcing “the decision to open the Kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the authority for overflying.”

The statement did not mention Israel, but Biden is expected to announce from Jeddah the successful brokering of a complicated regional deal that will see Saudi Arabia take steps toward normalization with Israel while taking possession of two islands from Egypt.

Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the decision over Twitter, and seemingly took credit for “laying the foundations for normalization” with the kingdom when direct flights from Israel to the United Arab Emirates over the peninsula were approved while he served as prime minister two years ago.

In this photo taken with low shutter speed, Muslim pilgrims circumambulate around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 6, 2022. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej declared the development an “exciting dream,” highlighting the positive impact of the move on Israel’s Muslim citizens, who will now enjoy cheaper, direct chartered flights to the annual hajj pilgrimage in Mecca.

Followers of the Islamic faith are obliged to carry out the duty at least once in their lifetime if they are able to.

“Winds of hope and change aEe blowing in the region and are having a positive impact on the lives of us all,” Frej said.

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli tweeted: “This is an important step that will allow for flights to be significantly shortened and will reduce the prices of flights from Israel to the east.”

However, the developments between Israel and Saudi Arabia did not please everyone.

Far-right Religious Zionism MK Bezalel Smotrich complained that Israel’s agreement to the transfer of the two Red Sea Islands from Egypt in exchange for opening the skies over Saudi Arabia was a strategic loss for the Jewish state, and that the government should have demanded more.

This photo taken on January 14, 2014, through the window of an airplane, shows the Red Sea’s Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP)

“Israel can and should condition its consent to the move on the Egyptian agreement to lay an Israeli freight train from the port of Eilat to the port of Ashdod, a train that will be a land alternative to the passage of maritime goods in the Suez Canal,” Smotrich wrote in a Facebook post, calling out Lapid on the missed opportunity.

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years as Riyadh and its de facto ruler, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have reportedly come to see Israel as a strategic partner in the battle against Iranian influence in the region.

The kingdom declined to sign onto the Washington-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020 as the US and Israel had hoped, but Riyadh is believed to have given the go-ahead to Bahrain, where it retains decisive influence, to join the normalization agreement with Israel alongside the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

The Saudi civil aviation authority said the decision to open up its airspace was made “to complement the Kingdom’s efforts aimed at consolidating the Kingdom’s position as a global hub connecting three continents.”

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