JERUSALEM: Israel voiced hope on Wednesday that Saudi authorities would admit direct flights for its citizens who want to perform Haj, which takes place next month, in what would mark another step towards normalising relations.

Saudi Arabia signalled approval for Israel’s US-sponsored forging of ties with United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020, but has held off on following suit, saying Palestinian goals for statehood should be addressed first.

Any such prospects have been further clouded, however, by Riyadh’s strains with US President Joe Biden, its recent fence-mending with Iran, and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right Israeli government.

Netanyahu’s centrist predecessor, Yair Lapid, said on March 10 that, as prime minister last year, he secured Saudi consent for what would be the first direct Haj flight from Israel, some 18 per cent of whose population is Muslim.

Riyadh has not offered confirmation.

Asked whether the direct flights would happen for this year’s Haj, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said a request had been submitted.

“This issue is under discussion. I cannot tell you if there is any progress,” he said in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio. “But with that, I am optimistic that we can advance peace with Saudi Arabia.”

The Biden administration predicted last June there would be direct charter flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for the Haj. But a senior US official briefed on the matter said on Wednesday that it was “unclear” if the flights would go ahead.

Muslims from Israel and the Palestinian territories currently travel to Makkah through third countries, which can spell additional expense and bother.

Saudi Arabia has been allowing Israeli airlines to overfly it to UAE and Bahrain since 2020, a corridor that it and next-door Oman have since expanded to include other destinations.

Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2023

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