Lapid: Israel working with US, Gulf states on normalization with Saudi Arabia

Foreign minister stresses that process will be ‘long and careful,’ with both Jerusalem and Riyadh having security interests at stake

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at an event launching a Knesset caucus dedicated to the Abraham Accords, in Jerusalem, October 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at an event launching a Knesset caucus dedicated to the Abraham Accords, in Jerusalem, October 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel is coordinating with the United States and Gulf nations on a process to normalize its ties with Saudi Arabia, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Monday.

“We believe that it is possible to have a normalization process with Saudi Arabia. It’s in our interest,” Lapid told Army Radio.

“We’ve already said that this is the next step after the Abraham Accords, to talk about a long and careful process,” he added, referring to the 2020 US-backed normalization deals Israel reached with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

“We’re working with the US and the Gulf states on this.”

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years. The powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, reportedly sees Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.

Lapid warned that the process of normalization with Saudi Arabia would be a lengthy one with progress coming in small steps, stressing that both countries have security interests at stake.

“This won’t happen the same way it did last time,” Lapid said in reference to the surprising and rapid nature in which the 2020 normalization deals were announced. “We won’t wake up one morning suddenly and it will be a surprise.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. (Collage/AP)

“It could be that three foreign ministers after me, someone will be standing on the podium and will celebrate this — which is completely fine; this is how one runs a state,” Lapid added.

His comments came as dozens of Israeli tech entrepreneurs and businesspeople recently flew to Saudi Arabia for advanced talks on Saudi investments in Israeli companies and Israeli investment funds, according to a Sunday report in the Globes business daily.

Last week, a pair of senior US officials were reportedly in Saudi Arabia for covert talks on an agreement that could boost Washington’s ties with Riyadh while also bringing the kingdom closer to normalizing relations with Israel.

According to the Axios news site, the trip was part of efforts to finalize an agreement on the transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

The islands feature prominently in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and their transfer to Saudi control thus requires a degree of Israeli support. As a result, the US and Israel are reportedly pushing Riyadh to take a series of small steps toward full normalization with Jerusalem.

Tiran Island, in the Red Sea, Egypt, February 10, 2017. (AP/Nariman El-Mofty)

The report said among the proposed steps are allowing Israel to use Saudi airspace for all flights, not just trips to Gulf countries, and direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and Medina.

Additionally, a senior Israeli official was hosted recently at a Riyadh palace for talks on various aspects of security and other coordination, Channel 12 news reported Friday, without citing a source.

The Yedioth Ahronoth daily also reported meetings between figures from both countries, without providing any further information.

The reports come ahead of US President Joe Biden’s expected visit to the Middle East, which will include stops in both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

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