Israel says it is discussing direct Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia
Israel voiced hope on Wednesday that Saudi authorities would admit direct flights for its Muslim citizens who want to make the Hajj pilgrimage, which begins next month, in what would mark another step toward normalising relations.
Saudia Arabia signalled approval for Israel's US-sponsored forging of ties with Gulf neighbours United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020 but has held off on following suit, saying Palestinian statehood should be addressed first.
Any such prospects have been further clouded by Riyadh's strained relationship with US President Joe Biden, its recent fence-mending with regional rival Iran, and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right Israeli government.
Last year, then prime minister Yair Lapid said on March 10 that he had secured Saudi consent for what would be the first direct Hajj flights from Israel, where some 18% of the population are Muslim.
A US official also predicted such flights in a June interview with Reuters. But Riyadh has not offered confirmation.
Asked whether the direct flights would happen for the coming June-August pilgrimage to the holy Saudi city of Mecca, 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."
Muslims from Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories currently travel to Mecca through third-party 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.