Israel and Saudi Arabia laying groundwork for ‘major diplomatic meeting’

Report says meeting will focus on economics and defense.

By David Hellerman, World Israel News

Israel and Saudi Arabia are laying the groundwork for a “major diplomatic meeting,” Globes reported on Sunday.

According to the report, the meeting will focus on economics and defense.

Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid confirmed in an interview on Army Radio that Israel is coordinating with the Gulf states and the U.S. in efforts to normalize ties with the Saudis.

“We believe that it is possible to have a normalization process with Saudi Arabia. It’s in our interest,” Lapid said. “We’ve already said that this is the next step after the Abraham Accords, to talk about a long and careful process.”

As part of the groundwork, the Saudis have allowed dozens of Israeli businessmen to enter the kingdom on Israeli passports after receiving a special visa. Globes reported that most of the Israelis invited to Saudi Arabia are managers and representatives of tech companies.

The Israelis visited Riyadh, the Saudi political and economic  center, as well as Neom, an ambitious futuristic city being built on the Red Sea.

A source told Globes that many Saudis are interested in visiting Israel to promote their own businesses and also learn about Israeli technology — especially in the area of agriculture.

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Israel’s primary interest in the Neom project regards the transfer of two Red Sea islands from Egypt to the Saudis.

The islands of Tiran and Sanafir were leased to Egypt in the 1950s, then captured by Israel during the Six-Day War. The Egyptian military used the islands to block Israeli shipping from passing through the strategic Straits of Tiran.

The islands were returned to Egypt with the signing of the 1979 Camp David accords. Under the terms of treaty, the islands were demilitarized.

The islands are uninhabited, except for international peacekeepers. They are also popular tourist spots for Red Sea divers.

Axios recently reported that Israel does not object in principle to the islands coming under Saudi sovereignty as long as they remain demilitarized and free shipping in the Straits of Tiran continues.

The Saudis have agreed to the demands, but reportedly reject the presence of international peacekeepers. Israel is considering unspecified alternative security arrangements.

The Saudi plans for Neom include a causeway connecting the Arabian Peninsula to the Sinai Peninsula.

Axios identified White House Mideast coordinator Brett McGurk as spearheading the US mediation over the two islands. The U.S. is hoping to clinch an agreement ahead of President Joe Biden’s Mideast visit at the end of June.

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In the broader picture of normalized ties, Israel is seeking permission for more of its passenger planes traveling eastward to be able to cross Saudi airspace and allow direct flights for Israeli Muslims making pilgrimages to Mecca.