Netanyahu said to speak with Saudi Arabia’s MBS about flights for Israeli pilgrims

Riyadh reportedly demanding major concessions granting PA security presence on Temple Mount, further powers in West Bank; PM’s office, Foreign Minister deny report

File: Benjamin Netanyahu (right) during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 13, 2021; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90; Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)
File: Benjamin Netanyahu (right) during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 13, 2021; Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90; Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen have spoken by phone in the past 24 hours with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman as part of “very complex” negotiations on launching direct flights between Israel and Jeddah next month for the Hajj annual Muslim pilgrimage, according to a Monday evening report.

Bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, known by his initials MBS, is holding the talks from Bahrain, with the mediation of that country’s foreign minister, Abdullatif bin Rashid Al- Zayani, even though Israel prefers the United States as a mediator, Channel 12 news reported, citing Saudi and Israeli sources.

Israel is under pressure from US President Joe Biden’s administration to agree to Riyadh’s demands for significant concessions to the Palestinians in return for the flights, according to the network.

These steps would include handing certain powers in the West Bank from the Israeli military to the Palestinian Authority forces, and giving the PA forces security-related authority at the Temple Mount and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s Old City — far-reaching steps that are highly unlikely to be approved by Israel’s hard-right government.

An unnamed Israeli source told Channel 12, “We will know in the coming weeks where it is going.”

Speaking at a conference Tuesday, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi denied the report, saying “there wasn’t any conversation between Netanyahu and MBS in recent months.”

A general view of the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque is seen during the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

The report came a day after several Hebrew media outlets said there were talks on enabling direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. According to those reports, the US was brokering the discussions.

The Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey, which takes them along a path believed to have been traversed by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago. This year’s pilgrimage is set to take place from June 26 to July 1.

Currently, Saudi Arabia accepts Muslim pilgrims arriving from Israel to Mecca but requires them to travel through a third country, increasing the cost of the already pricey journey. According to Maariv, 2,700 Israelis embarked on the pilgrimage in 2022, and this year, the figure is expected to almost double to 4,500.

In a historic move last year, Saudi Arabia announced that it opened its airspace to all civilian overflights, hours before US President Joe Biden became the first US leader to directly fly from Israel to the Gulf nation. Expectations at the time that Riyadh would also approve the Hajj flights were not realized.

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen touted the possibility of normalization with Saudi Arabia within six months, during an interview with Channel 12’s Meet the Press.

“There’s a good chance we can advance a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia,” Cohen said. “I assume there is definitely a chance in half a year, or in the coming year.”

Cohen cited Jerusalem and Riyadh’s joint interests, notably preventing Iran from creating a nuclear bomb, as a reason to be hopeful for a deal.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at a ceremony in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, January 2, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

MBS stressed his commitment to Palestinian statehood at the Arab League summit on Friday, calling it a “central issue for Arab countries, and it is at the top of the kingdom’s priorities.”

The comments were largely standard for leadership in Riyadh, which has long insisted publicly that it remains committed to the Palestinian cause and will only normalize ties with Israel after a two-state solution has been reached.

Saudi Arabia’s decision in March to renew ties with Iran after over half a decade was also seen by some as a setback for normalization between the kingdom and Israel.

This has not stopped the Biden administration from working to strike a deal between Jerusalem and Riyadh, with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan calling it a “national security interest” earlier this month.

Still, Saudi Arabia has been willing to name its price for normalizing with Israel in talks with Biden officials. A senior diplomat said that Riyadh has requested Washington to okay a civilian nuclear program in exchange for normalization with Israel.

The program is among several demands Riyadh has presented in talks with the Biden administration over the past year, the diplomat said, while clarifying that such a deal remains “very far off.”

On Sunday, the Bahraini Foreign Ministry said that its foreign minister, al-Zayani, had spoken by telephone with Cohen. The two discussed bilateral relations and the political situation in the Middle East, and a possible meeting, the ministry said.

Netanyahu flew to Saudi Arabia in November 2020 to meet with bin Salman, the first publicly reported meeting between the two. Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, but clandestine ties have strengthened in recent years, as the two countries have confronted a shared threat in Iran.

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