Despite opening airspace, Saudis say no peace with Israel before two-state solution

Israeli approval for plan to return Red Sea islands to Saudis apparently set in motion the permission for overflights.

By David Hellerman

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister denied that a decision to open the kingdom’s airspace to Israeli flights was a step towards normalization with the Jewish state.

“No, this has nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel,” said Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan at a press conference on Saturday in Jeddah following a visit U.S. President Joe Biden, who addressed the Gulf Cooperation Council summit.

“The issue of overflights is a decision we took… in the interest [of] providing connectivity between countries in the world, and we hope that it will make some travelers’ lives easier. It’s not in any way a precursor to any further steps.”

The remarks contradicted President Joe Biden, who called the overflights, “a big deal, not only symbolically but substantively.”

Speaking in Jeddah on Friday night, Biden said, “This is the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations.”

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir admitted that normalizing relations was an option for the future, but maintained that Israel and the Palestinians would first have to finalize an agreement for a two-state solution.

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

Red Sea islands

Meanwhile, Axios reported that Israel approved the parameters of a deal allowing Egypt to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia. The arrangement includes peace monitors being moved to other locations on the Sinai peninsula and for cameras to monitor the Straits of Tiran.

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 islands were demilitarized in accordance with the 1979 Camp David Accords.

The islands lie in Saudi territorial waters, but in 1950, they were leased to Egypt and placed under Cairo’s protection at the request of the Saudis. Israel captured the islands during the Six-Day in 1967 after Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. The islands were returned to Egypt along with the Sinai Peninsula when Israel and Egypt made peace.

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The islands are currently uninhabited except for international peace monitors. However tourists — primarily Red Sea snorkeling enthusiasts — can take day trips by boat from Sharm el-Sheikh.

Israel joining a regional air defense network?

The summit is known as the GCC+3. The GCC consists of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The “plus three” countries are Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

Prince Faisal also said he was unaware of any discussion at the summit regarding the inclusion of Israel in an integrated air defense network against Iran, a topic of discussion between Israeli and U.S. officials this year. The issue was first raised in June at the Negev Summit, with the participation of the U.S., Israel, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the UAE.

“There was no discussion about a GCC-Israeli defense alliance or anything of the sort. At least I’m not aware of such discussions,” Prince Faisal said.

The White House didn’t respond to Prince Faisal’s comments.

However, a senior U.S. official briefing reporters said the Biden administration is optimistic that there will be “additional announcements” regarding Israel and the air defense network.

Direct flights for Arab Israeli pilgrims

The Saudis are also expected to announce permission for Arab Israelis making religious pilgrimages to Mecca to be able to fly on charter flights directly to the kingdom. According to Hebrew media reports, arrangements have not yet been finalized.

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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.