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Why Israel asks Saudis to let Mecca pilgrims fly in from Tel Aviv

Israel’s regional cooperation minister says that he has asked Saudi Arabia to admit direct flights from Tel Aviv for Muslim pilgrims to perform the Hajj, pointing to a possible new accommodation by Riyadh ahead of next week’s visit by US President Joe Biden.

Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freij on Thursday said Israel has been working to bring what he deemed as under-the-counter contacts between the countries based mostly on commercial interests and shared worries about Iran – more into the open.

I want to see the day when I can depart from Ben-Gurion airport to Jeddah to fulfill my religious obligation of pilgrimage to Mecca, said Freij, a member of Israel’s 18 percent Muslim minority.

I took this matter up with Saudi Arabia and I really hope that day will come, he told Israel’s Army Radio, without expanding on where or when such discussions took place.

Saudi Arabia has long admitted Muslim pilgrims from Israel but they must travel through third countries. That ends up costing approximately $11,500 for a week-long stay, Freij said. Pilgrims from neighboring Arab countries pay around half that.

Israeli officials have also sought expanded permission for Israeli airlines to fly over Saudi territory to Asian destinations.

Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel and has said nothing of possible bilateral developments during Biden’s visit. Israel has also shied from drawing such links.

But a person in Washington who was familiar with the matter said the new aviation deals sought by Israel could be announced around the time of Biden’s visit but that details still needed to be worked out and may not be completed in time.

When the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain established relations with Israel in 2020, Riyadh signaled its assent by providing a Saudi air corridor for Israeli planes headed to those Gulf states.

We are in talks about getting general Saudi over-flight rights for destinations other than Dubai, Abu Dhabi, or Manama. This will save significant time for reaching Asian destinations, for example, an Israeli official told the Reuters news agency.

Separately, an Israeli daily newspaper reported that an adviser to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that the possibility of holding a meeting between Saudi, American, and Israeli officials was being considered during Biden’s visit to the kingdom next week.

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