Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and his Saudi counterpart Faisal Bin Farhan participated in a virtual meeting of top diplomats from around the world hosted by United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken aimed at boosting cooperation to combat the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, two officials familiar with the matter confirmed to The Times of Israel on Thursday.
The meeting took place on December 21 and both Lapid and Blinken issued statements afterward, but neither mentioned the presence of Farhan on the Zoom call.
Riyadh has taken a number of steps in recent years toward normalizing relations with Jerusalem. The Saudis were said to have given a behind-the-scenes green light to the United Arab Emirates forging ties with Israel last year, and have since allowed Israeli aircraft to use its airspace for direct flights to Dubai and Abu Dhabi. However, Israel-Saudi ties have remained almost entirely at unofficial levels, and the Gulf kingdom insists that won’t change unless Israel makes peace with the Palestinians.
That has not stopped the US from raising the issue with Saudi Arabia in recent years, particularly during the previous administration of Donald Trump, which brokered the Abraham Accord normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.
US President Joe Biden is supportive of the agreements and has taken steps to develop the new ties Israel has forged with some of its Arab neighbors, but expanding the Abraham Accords will be a taller task, as the administration is not fond of some of the steps Trump took to coax countries into signing peace deals with Israel.
Moreover, Biden is keener on tying such agreements to progress on the Palestinian front than his predecessor was, which also adds a layer of complexity to negotiations on the matter.
Ostensibly recognizing Saudi hesitance to publicize the rare virtual meeting Riyad’s foreign minister sat in on with Lapid, Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the record.
השתתפתי הערב בזום שרי חוץ על האומיקרון, יחד עם מזכיר המדינה האמריקאי @ABlinken ושרי החוץ של יפן, הודו, מקסיקו, אוסטרליה, גרמניה ומדינות רבות נוספות. דיברנו על ההתמודדות הגלובלית, האתגרים והפתרונות להתפרצות האומיקרון. pic.twitter.com/TISPtbem75
— יאיר לפיד – Yair Lapid???? (@yairlapid) December 21, 2021
But two officials confirmed Farhan’s participation, which was first reported by CNN.
In Lapid’s statement in the meeting, the foreign minister said the foreign ministers of Japan, India, Mexico, Australia, Germany and many other countries had also been on the call along with Blinken and himself.
“I relayed that the virus does not care if we are Muslims, Jews, Christians or Hindus, and that we should not care either. We have to fight it together,” Lapid said.
The US State Department readout did not delve into the identities of any of the countries on the call, saying that “Blinken met virtually with several foreign ministers and representatives of regional organizations involved in the response to the Omicron variant today. They exchanged information to better understand the Omicron variant, coordinate a global response, and accelerate efforts to combat COVID-19.”
Faisal’s office did not publicly confirm his participation in the virtual meeting.
In September, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reportedly raised the notion of Saudi Arabia normalizing ties with Israel during a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last month in the Red Sea city of Neom.
Bin Salman did not reject the proposal out of hand, according to the Axios report, which cited three US and Arab sources.
The Saudi crown prince in turn presented US officials with a list of steps that would have to take place before such a normalization agreement could move forward, the report said. Those steps included an improvement in bilateral US-Saudi relations, after ties cooled since the election of Biden, who has been more critical of Riyadh’s human rights record.
Given the Sunni Gulf kingdom’s significant influence in the region, supporters of normalization believe it would initiate a domino effect with other countries following suit and dramatically shifting power dynamics in the Middle East against the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran.
However, some analysts note Riyadh’s recent efforts to warm ties with Iran and Qatar as a signal that Saudi Arabia is heading in a different direction — one that does not include forging diplomatic ties with the Jewish state.