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Senior Israeli official said to visit Saudi Arabia amid growing talk of warming ties

Talks in Riyadh focused on regional security issues, threats posed by Iran, report says; meeting comes ahead of Biden visit to the region, as US pushes for cooperation

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

A senior Israeli official reportedly visited Saudi Arabia very recently amid growing speculation that Jerusalem and Riyadh are readying small steps toward normalizing relations.

The official was warmly hosted at a Riyadh palace for talks on various aspects of security and other coordination, Israel’s Channel 12 reported Friday, without citing a source.

The network said the sides discussed regional security interests that have further aligned in recent years over common threats posed by Iran.

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

The reported interaction between two countries that have no formal relations came as the US has pushed for cooperation between its allies in the region, and ahead of a Middle East visit by US President Joe Biden; the president will be going to both Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The US National Security Council Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, and State Department energy envoy Amos Hochstein traveled to Saudi Arabia earlier this week, reportedly in an effort to finalize an agreement on the transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia.

That deal requires Israeli approval because of the multinational observer force that has been deployed on the islands since the Jewish state’s peace deal with Egypt. As a result, the US and Israel are reportedly pushing Riyadh to take a series of small steps toward full normalization with Jerusalem.

Axios reported that these proposed steps include Saudi Arabia allowing Israel to use its 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.

According to Yedioth and Channel 12, the US is seeking a more public gesture from Saudi Arabia toward normalization with Israel.

The newspaper said the White House officials have been promoting the formation of a regional security axis tying together Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and other countries.

McGurk has been working to orchestrate a meeting between Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman and is aiming to broker an agreement between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel before Biden’s trip to the region late next month.

While the administration has only confirmed Biden’s planned trip to Israel, CNN reported last week that US officials are seeking to organize a meeting between Biden and the Saudi crown prince.

Washington has slowly sought to improve ties with Riyadh after Biden came down hard against Saudi Arabia and its crown prince during his election campaign over the country’s human rights record and the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

But as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to rock the global energy market, the US is finding itself increasingly reliant on Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter.

Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata is due to meet with his US counterpart Jake Sullivan in Washington next week for talks that will include an update on McGurk’s efforts.

While Riyadh gave its blessing to client states UAE and Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel, it has refrained from taking the same step, saying it would not do so without a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Prince Mohammed said in March that Israel could be a “potential ally” of Riyadh.

“We don’t look at Israel as an enemy, we look to them as a potential ally, with many interests that we can pursue together,” Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler said.

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