Lapid calls opening of Saudi skies ‘baby steps’ of normalization

PM optimistic despite Riyadh downplaying normalizing Israel-Saudi ties.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Following Saudi Arabia’s decision to open its skies to Israeli commercial flights, Prime Minister Yair Lapid optimistically labeled the move as “baby steps” towards normalized relations.

Speaking before the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Lapid said, “What’s happening with Saudi Arabia is indeed normalization,” although he did add that it was a process of “baby steps.”

Lapid was praising the opening of the kingdom’s air space to Israeli civilian airliners, which will considerably shorten trips to the Far East and lower prices for travelers. Since the Abraham Accords were signed in 2020, Riyadh had allowed flights from Ben Gurion Airport only to Bahrain and the UAE, its fellow Gulf countries that normalized their relations with Israel.

The Saudi announcement came amidst the backdrop of U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Jerusalem’s assent to a plan for Egypt to transfer two Red Sea islands back to Saudi sovereignty. Jerusalem’s acquiescence on the islands was necessary as it was one of the conditions of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979.

Biden, too, hailed the overflights as a significant achievement, saying “This is the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations” between the two countries.”

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However, senior Saudis have downplayed the overflights as “normalization.”

On Saturday, when asked by reporters about the overflights, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said, “No, this has nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel.”

“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.”

On Saturday Prince Farhan poured even more cold water on the idea, stating that he did not bring up at any stage of the discussions the issue of military or technical cooperation with Israel. In fact, “Saudi Arabia’s hand is extended to Iran,” he said.

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir, also stated in an interview with CNN on Saturday while that peace with Israel was possible, said that the Palestinian issue had to be resolved first.

“We have said that Saudi Arabia supports the Arab Peace Initiative. In fact, we offered it,” said Jubeir.

He was referring to a Saudi peace proposal originally floated in 2002. It called for Israel to withdraw from territories captured in 1967, recognize a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and negotiate a “just solution” for Palestinian refugees in exchange for Arab states normalizing relations with Israel. Israel never responded to the proposal.

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“We have made it clear that peace comes at the end of this process, not at the beginning of it,” he stressed.