Minister: Israel holds direct contacts with Saudis, others in Gulf to fight Iran

Issawi Frej, the regional cooperation minister, says he hopes to see ties grow; Saudi Arabia has previously said there will be no normalization without Israeli-Palestinian peace

Meretz MK Issawi Frej at a party conference in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Meretz MK Issawi Frej at a party conference in Tel Aviv, on January 14, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel is in direct contact with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states combating the influence of Iran in the region, Regional Cooperation Minister Issawi Frej said on Tuesday.

“When it comes to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, there’s direct communication and understandings” regarding how to confront Iran, Frej said in an interview with Al-Hurra, an Arabic-language channel funded by the US government.

Asked for further information about the nature of the contacts, Frej demurred, saying it was outside the scope of his office. The Regional Cooperation portfolio deals with Arab states with which Israel shares normalization accords, Frej said.

Saudi Arabia has no official ties with Israel. But two of its close regional partners — Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — normalized relations with Israel last year.

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu allegedly visited Saudi Arabia last November to hold covert discussions with Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman. The Saudi government denied the meeting publicly.

But Riyadh — and particularly Bin Salman, who has sought an overhaul of the kingdom’s vision — has been said to be considering public ties with Israel in recent years. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are bitter foes of Iran, which they see as a threat to regional stability.

“This is an international issue, not just one that impacts [Israel] or Saudi Arabia,” added Frej, a member of the left-wing Meretz party.

Saudi Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud (AFP)

Nonetheless, the Saudis have said on several occasions that they will not normalize ties with Israel without a peace deal with the Palestinians.

“Peace must be achieved between the Israelis and the Palestinians, on the basis of international parameters. Once this goal is achieved, anything is possible,” Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud said last August.

Frej, the only Arab minister in the government, was handed the Regional Cooperation Ministry when the coalition was formed two months ago. The office was widely seen as redundant, but Frej has insisted that he will make it relevant in expanding commercial contacts with the Palestinian Authority and the Arab world.

The minister added that he hoped that one day Arab Israelis would be able to fly directly to the holy Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, to participate in the Islamic hajj pilgrimage. As there is no direct air travel from Israel to Saudi Arabia, Arab Israelis must currently first head to a third country for a connecting journey.

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