Israel says direct Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia 'won't happen now'

Israel says direct Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia 'won't happen now'
Israel's transport ministry said no airlines have applied to run special flights to Saudi Arabia for the upcoming Hajj season, which is due to begin at the end of June.
3 min read
Israeli airlines will not be carrying out any direct Hajj flights to Saudi Arabia, despite previous speculations [Getty]

Israel said on Monday that direct flights to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage would not happen this year, and played down any prospects of an imminent US-mediated normalisation of relations with Riyadh.

Saudi Arabia has not normalised ties with Israel, despite Gulf neighbours UAE and Bahrain forging ties with Tel Aviv in 2020 amid the controversial US-brokered Abraham Accords. Riyadh has repeatedly stated that no diplomatic ties will be made unless an independent Palestinian state is established.

Still, Israeli and US officials had predicted that the kingdom, home to Islam's two holiest sites, might allow for Muslim Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise 18 percent of the country's population, to fly in directly for this year's Hajj.

Riyadh never formally offered that, however.

With the pilgrimage now imminent - June 25 to July 2 - and Israel's transport ministry reporting no airlines applying to run special flights to the Gulf kingdom, a top aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged they would not happen.

"Perhaps for the next Hajj we will be in a position to help in this matter, and (direct) flights will depart from here," National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi told Kan radio. "But it's too early to say."

A potential Israeli-Saudi normalisation is major foreign policy goal of Netanyahu, who regained power in December at the head of a hard-right government that has been described as the most extreme in the country's 70-year history.

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Normalisation between Tel Aviv and Riyadh is also a goal of the Biden administration, who seek to expand the Abraham Accords which also saw Morocco forge ties with Israel in 2020.

But Hanegbi, in a weekend newspaper interview, said normalisation was "a ways off" because, he argued, it would hinge on addressing strains between Riyadh and Washington.

"Since we thought a Saudi-US agreement was the precursor for any (Israeli) peace deal with Riyadh, we assessed that it would not have a high chance of being realised," Hanegbi told Israel Hayom.

A source familiar with the matter said Riyadh wants US support for its civilian nuclear programme in exchange for normalisation with Israel - which, for its part, has voiced misgivings over any such quid-pro-quo.

Visiting Saudi Arabia on June 8, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration would continue working on normalisation "in the days, weeks and months ahead".

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen told Channel 14 TV he saw a "window of opportunity" through March 2024 for Washington to address Saudi demands for normalisation because after that, "the United States will be deep in the (presidential) election".

Normalisation with Israel is a controversial topic in the Arab world, which has been almost unanimously condemned in the region, particularly by Palestinians who consider the move as a "stab in the back" for their cause, as Israel continues to brutally occupy and besiege the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.