Unprecedented: Israeli minister leads delegation to Saudi Arabia

First-ever Israeli delegation led by government minister visits Riyadh, as Saudi Arabia sends new envoy to Ramallah.

By The Associated Press

In a clear sign that a landmark diplomatic deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia has gained momentum, Israel’s Tourism Minister Haim Katz on Tuesday led an Israeli delegation to Riyadh to take part in a conference hosted by the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

Katz’s office described his visit as unprecedented for an Israeli minister and said he would hold discussions with officials from across the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s newly appointed envoy to the Palestinian Authority presented his credentials to PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas during his first visit to the PA on Tuesday, a move linked to recent American efforts to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The trip by nonresident Saudi ambassador Nayef al-Sudairi — marking the first time that the Saudi delegation has visited Judea and Samaria since 1967 — came as Israel’s tourism minister became the first senior Israeli official to make a public visit to Saudi Arabia.

The visit by al-Sudairi to Ramallah is widely seen as an attempt by the kingdom to address the key sticking point in the Saudi-Israeli normalization deal: Saudi Arabia’s stance toward the Palestinian Authority.

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The Saudi government has said it will only normalize ties with Israel if there is major progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

To kick off his two-day trip, al-Sudairi, who also serves as the Saudi ambassador to Jordan, met with Abbas and other senior officials.

Before presenting his credentials, he sought to assure the Palestinians that Saudi Arabia was “working to establish a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital,” without elaborating.

“God willing, next time this meeting will take place in Jerusalem,” al-Sudairi told journalists after the meeting.

Nearly two decades ago, Saudi Arabia and other Arab leaders endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, pledging that there would be no diplomatic recognition of Israel without a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Saudi Arabia also wants Israel to grant at least some kind of concession to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for a normalization deal.

From Ramallah on Tuesday, al-Sudairi reiterated the kingdom’s position in support of the Palestinians, describing the Arab Peace Initiative as a “fundamental pillar of any agreement.”

Officials Tuesday were tight-lipped about the kinds of concessions under discussion, instead praising bilateral ties. Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki hailed the visit as a “historic milestone.”

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“He is here to begin work developing relations between our countries,” al-Maliki said of the ambassador. “It is a major responsibility, to preserve the Palestinian cause.”

The Palestinian Authority also has not specified what it is willing to accept from the Israeli government.

Tuesday’s visit by Tourism Minister Katz to Riyadh appeared to further accelerate the countries’ push for normalization. Before taking off for Saudi Arabia, Katz described tourism as a “bridge between nations.”

“Partnership in tourism issues has the potential to bring hearts together and economic prosperity,” he said.

When asked about Katz’s visit, Ahmad Deek, the director-general of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, said that the Palestinian Authority “is in continuous dialogue” about the developments with Saudi officials and “trusts in their support for the rights of our people.”