Israel is trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to allow it to send special Hajj pilgrimage flights to Mecca, building on Trump administration efforts to strengthen cooperation between the two nations.
Instead of enduring the 1,000-mile bus route across the Jordan River and through the Saudi desert to reach Islam’s most sacred shrine, Israel hopes its Muslim citizens will be able to fly directly into the kingdom from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, Communications Minister Ayoob Kara said. Just two months ago, Trump broke a longstanding taboo by flying between the two nations, which do not have formal diplomatic relations or airline links but have drawn closer in recent years due to a shared enemy, Iran.
“Reality has changed,” Kara said in an interview this week at his office in Jerusalem. “This is a good time to make the request, and I’m working hard on it.”
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has dangled the prospect of air traffic and other commercial ties between the two countries since proposing its Arab Peace Initiative in 2002. In return, Israel would have to accept a Palestinian state and withdraw from territories it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war, something it isn’t willing to do. But their suspicion of Iran’s ambitions has made cooperation an open secret.
Both Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say involvement by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors would be useful in reaching a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Facilitating the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of several proposed sweeteners aimed at inducing Israel to make negotiating concessions to the Palestinians, Kara said. Others include lifting some trade restrictions, improving telecommunications links with the Gulf and giving overflight permission to Israeli air carriers, saving them time and money on flights to Asia.
“There’s a long history of Hajj travel being used as a confidence-building gesture, partly because it has a purity of religious purpose, and yet politics are involved because borders are not open in the Middle East,” said Scott Lasensky, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former policy adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
About 6,000 Israeli Arabs make the Hajj journey every year, most on group bus tours, though a few hundred are allowed to fly to Saudi Arabia from Jordan’s Queen Alia International Airport, Kara said.
Saudi Arabia makes an exception to its official hands-off policy with Israel when it comes to the Hajj because of its religious duty as guardian of the holy city to facilitate travel to Mecca for all Muslims. Even so, Kara says the trip can be difficult. The buses are often in poor condition, air conditioning breaks down and border delays are frequent. Because Saudi Arabia doesn’t honor Israeli passports, its citizens are issued temporary Jordanian travel documents, which often take a long time to process, he says.
Ideally, Israeli travelers to Mecca should be able to fly non-stop from Tel Aviv, but the route being negotiated may have a stop in Jordan or another country, Kara said. Also in discussion is the prospect of Saudi Arabia issuing temporary passports for the Israeli pilgrims, instead of relying on Jordan, which has a formal peace treaty with Israel, he said in the July 10 interview.
Kara said he’s spoken to government officials in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries about the Hajj plan and they’re “ready to do it, but it’s very sensitive and it’s still a matter of negotiation.”
Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation did not immediately respond to an email and telephone call requesting comment.
An increasing number of Israeli companies have been doing business in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, mostly through subsidiaries that mask their origins. Some of the most sought-after Israeli products are in the fields of cyber-defense, agricultural technology and desalination, Israeli officials say, Publicly, Saudi authorities say the kingdom has no commercial relations with Israel.
Kara, a Druze Arab who fought in the Israeli military, opposes Palestinian statehood and is fiercely loyal to Netanyahu, said he believes Gulf countries will deepen commercial ties with Israel even if peace efforts collapse. He previously was Netanyahu’s deputy minister for regional cooperation, a role he said put him in contact with leaders from many countries that don’t have diplomatic ties with Israel.
“For the countries in this region, what provides more defense than tanks and jets?” said Kara. “They need cyber-defense, and that’s an integral part of my office.”
Palestinians fear Netanyahu will try to strike agreements with the Gulf countries, which share Israel’s security concerns about Iran, while leaving them stateless. Kara, who says Israel’s ties with the broader Arab world can’t forever be held hostage to the Palestinian issue, hopes his new job can help promote Israel as a commercial partner in Arab countries.
“It opens doors,” Kara said. “I want to use it to help develop Israeli business everywhere, certainly in the Persian Gulf and also across the entire Arab world.”
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · Jonathan Ferziger, Yaacov Benmeleh