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US has clinched deal with Saudis for normalization steps toward Israel — official

Middle East diplomat confirms agreement is moving forward; will allow Israeli airlines to fly over Arab kingdom as well as direct flights from Israel for Muslim pilgrims

United States President Joe Biden during a welcoming ceremony, at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on July 13, 2022, on  his first official visit to Israel since becoming US president. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
United States President Joe Biden during a welcoming ceremony, at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on July 13, 2022, on his first official visit to Israel since becoming US president. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

US President Joe Biden, during his visit to Jeddah this weekend, will announce the successful brokering of an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Egypt that will see Riyadh take steps toward normalization with Israel, a Middle East diplomat confirmed to The Times of Israel Thursday.

The normalization measures will include Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli flights to the Far East in addition to rolling out direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims, the Middle East diplomat said, confirming reporting in the Axios news site.

The US has been seeking to finalize the transfer of the Tiran and Sanafir Red Sea islands from Cairo to Riyadh in time for Biden’s visit to Jeddah, where he will participate in the GCC+3 summit and hold a bilateral meeting with Saudi officials.

Israel handed over control of the two islands to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace agreement, but the sides agreed to demilitarize the islands and to allow the presence of a multinational observer force to remain. Israel had been seeking similar assurances from Saudi Arabia in order to sign off on the deal, but Riyadh has been hesitant to put the commitment in writing, the diplomat said last week.

Axios reported Thursday that Israel had now given its official agreement to the transfer of the islands.

The deal is legally complex because the countries do not maintain official ties and therefore are working through conduits. Riyadh has also been hesitant to put details of the agreement in writing, much to Israel’s discomfort, a diplomat previously said.

An El Al plane parked at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, April 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

While the observer force will be transferred to another location, Saudi Arabia has committed to ensuring Israel’s freedom of transport around the islands, the diplomat said.

At a press conference with Prime Minister Yair Lapid earlier Thursday, Biden said he was “optimistic” about the prospects of being able to announce Saudi overflights when he arrives in Jeddah Friday.

In an opinion article ahead of the trip, Biden said the direct travel was a “small symbol” of the warming ties between Israel and the Arab world and “steps toward normalization.”

This photo taken on January 14, 2014, through the window of an airplane, shows the Red Sea’s Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP)

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years as Riyadh and its de facto ruler, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have reportedly come to see Israel as a strategic partner in the battle against Iranian influence in the region.

The kingdom declined to sign onto the Washington-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020 as the US and Israel had hoped, but Riyadh is believed to have given the go-ahead to Bahrain, where it retains decisive influence, to join the normalization agreement with Israel alongside the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

Saudi Arabia did begin allowing Israeli airlines to fly over its territory in a special air corridor for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain, after the accords were signed. But Israel has yet to receive such access for flights to and from India, Thailand and China, for example.

Should Riyadh announce its approval for use of its airspace, travel to and from those countries will take significantly less time.

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