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Saudis said set to host top Hamas delegation, further dimming Israeli hopes for ties

Palestinian terror group’s political leadership, including Ismail Haniyeh, reportedly to arrive Sunday and discuss improving relations after years of tension

File: Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh flashes the victory sign before he speaks to journalists after his meeting with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, in Beirut, Lebanon, on June 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
File: Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh flashes the victory sign before he speaks to journalists after his meeting with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, in Beirut, Lebanon, on June 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

A senior delegation representing Palestinian terror group Hamas was set to visit Saudi Arabia on Sunday, according to multiple Arabic media reports, representing a major development as Israel’s hopes of forging official ties with Riyadh appear to dwindle further.

For many years, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Hamas has been cold and tense, and the kingdom even arrested many people with ties to the jihadist group, which rules the Gaza Strip and openly seeks Israel’s destruction.

But following its landmark rapprochement with Iran, Riyadh appeared set to host a high-level delegation including Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh, his deputy Saleh al-Arouri, and the head of the group abroad, Khaled Mashaal, according to various Palestinian and Arabic-language media outlets, including Jordan’s Al Ghad and the London-based Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

The delegation will reportedly pay a pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest site in Mecca and try to mend Hamas’s relationship with Riyadh, which has been frosty since 2007, when the terror group overthrew the Palestinian Authority and took over Gaza in a bloody coup. Saudi leaders had blamed Hamas for the failure of attempts at reconciliation between it and the PA’s Fatah party.

In 2019, Saudi authorities arrested dozens of Hamas-linked operatives, saying they were threatening the kingdom’s rule.

In recent months, after Hamas leaders sent messages that they would like to mend ties with the kingdom, Saudi Arabia has released many of those detainees, including senior member Mohammad Al-Khodary, who was freed in October.

In this picture released by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, right, meets with his Saudi Arabian counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud in Beijing Thursday, April 6, 2023. (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

Last week, US media reported that Saudi Arabia’s interest in establishing diplomatic relations with Israel had cooled in recent months amid ongoing violence in the West Bank and clashes at the flashpoint Temple Mount site.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prioritized including the kingdom in the 2020 Abraham Accords upon his return to office in December, but Riyadh and other Muslim nations have become reluctant to openly advance a deal due to spiking Israeli-Palestinian tensions, Israeli and Gulf officials told The Wall Street Journal.

Notably, a plan brokered by Washington to schedule direct flights from Tel Aviv to Mecca, allowing Israel’s Muslim citizens to more easily take part in the sacred Hajj pilgrimage, is unlikely to be finalized, Israeli officials told the paper.

The US-brokered Abraham Accords saw the kingdom’s neighbors — the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — establish full diplomatic ties with Israel.

In 2022, hopes for deepening ties with Riyadh peaked when the kingdom allowed Israeli civilian flights to pass over its airspace.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promises Muslim voters that he will ensure that there are direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia, March 23, 2021 (screen capture)

Since the establishment of Netanyahu’s hardline right-wing government, the Saudis have issued several condemnations against Israel over West Bank settlement expansion, violent confrontations between Israeli troops and Palestinians, and called comments by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to “wipe out” the town of Huwara “racist and irresponsible.”

The comments were made in the wake of a terror attack in February that killed two Israeli brothers in the West Bank town, which was followed by a violent rampage by settlers in Huwara in which a Palestinian was killed.

Shortly before being sworn in, Netanyahu said a normalization deal with the Saudis could serve as a “quantum leap” for long-moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

The two countries were also interested in aligning against their common regional rival Iran. However, the recent rapproachment deal between Riyadh and Tehran is further complicating efforts.

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