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Saudi flights

Move would be an important step towards normalization of Israeli-Saudi ties.

By Pesach Benson, United with Israel

Saudi Arabia is expected to announce permission for commercial airliners flying to and from Israel to cross its airspace, CNN reported on Wednesday, which represents one step closer to normalization for the Mideast nations.

The report also said the Saudis will also announce permission for Israeli Muslims to take direct charter flights so they can participate in annual pilgrimages to Mecca.

Israel and the Saudis do not have formal diplomatic relations, but have been moving closer amid shared concerns about threats from Iran.

The report comes amid the backdrop of U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia this week. Biden is scheduled to fly directly from Tel Aviv to Jeddah.

In a Washington Post op-ed explaining his visit, Biden described his flight as “a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world, which my administration is working to deepen and expand.”

The Saudis have allowed commercial flights between Israel and the Gulf states to cross its skies, but not for flights to destinations further east, such as India, Thailand, China or Australia. Overflight rights would cut several hours off the flight times

Because the Saudis don’t recognize Israeli passports, Arab Israelis making a pilgrimage to Mecca can only enter the kingdom with a special Jordanian permit.

Arab Israelis who possess passports from other countries do not need the Jordanian permit, but nevertheless must enter Saudi Arabia by travelling in from a third country — usually Jordan or Turkey.

According to Hebrew media reports, 6,000 Israelis make the pilgrimage each year.

The overflights may be part of a package agreement in which Israel gives its assent to Egypt transferring two Red Sea islands back to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis are interested in Tiran Island and Sanafir Island as part of an ambitious plan to build a futuristic city called Neom. The project includes a causeway linking the Saudi and Sinai peninsulas via Tiran Island.

Finalizing the transfer requires Israeli approval because the uninhabited islands were demilitarized in accordance with the 1979 Camp David Accords.

Israel does not object in principle to the islands coming under Saudi sovereignty as long as they remain demilitarized and free shipping in the Straits of Tiran continues.

The Saudis have agreed to the demands, but reportedly reject the presence of international peacekeepers. Israel is considering unspecified alternative security arrangements.

The U.S. has been mediating talks over the islands. According to reports, the White House was hoping to make an announcement before or during Biden’s visit.

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