Israel’s foreign minister has said that his country was looking to US President Joe Biden’s Middle East trip next month to help improve relations with Saudi Arabia, a country with which it does not have official ties.
“The fact that the president’s going to fly directly from here to Saudi Arabia is probably signifying that there is a linkage between the visit and the ability to improve relations,” Yair Lapid said on Wednesday at a news conference in Jerusalem.
“There is a list of target countries: Saudi is first among them,” along with other nations such as Indonesia, he told reporters. Asked whether there would be an Israeli official on the plane to the kingdom, Lapid said he did not know. But he joked that, “Air Force One is a big plane, maybe we’ll hide someone in a bathroom.”
On Tuesday, the White House confirmed Biden’s first trip to the Middle East next month during which he will visit Israel and the West Bank, followed by a trip to Saudi Arabia – a country he had previously called a “pariah” state.
The US president is also expected to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) in an about-turn for Biden, who was critical of the Saudi crown prince who has been linked to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, but denies any involvement.
Israeli leaders have long said they want to improve relations with Arab countries, which have called for Israel’s complete withdrawal from the Palestinian territories occupied after 1967 in exchange for the normalisation of ties.
Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have already established diplomatic ties with Israel as part of the so-called Abraham Accords pushed by former US President Donald Trump.
Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but have shared clandestine security ties over a shared enmity of regional archrival Iran. It has long been rumoured to be among the Arab states considering the establishment of open ties with Israel.
Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged Saudi Arabia in the past to recognise Israel as it would contribute “greatly to our shared goals for regional peace and security”.
In 2020, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly flew to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with MBS, shortly after Israel had established full relations with Arab countries including the UAE, as part of the US-brokered deal.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman has been a longtime supporter of the Palestinians and their desire to establish an independent state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and occupied East Jerusalem.
The kingdom has conditioned the establishment of full diplomatic ties with Israel upon a two-state solution to the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians, and continues to condemn Israel’s “flagrant violations” of Palestinian rights.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has allowed flights between Israel and Gulf states to cross through its airspace.
On Iran, Lapid, the Israeli foreign minister, said that all parties recognise that a regional nuclear arms race “is in nobody’s interest”.
Negotiations between world powers and Iran to strike a new agreement to replace one signed in 2015 – and later abandoned unilaterally by the Trump administration – to curtail Tehran’s nuclear programme, have dragged on for months.
Israel has long contended that Iran seeks to develop nuclear weapons and will take whatever action necessary to prevent it from doing so. Iran insists its nuclear programme is for peaceful purposes only.
“We are trying to put Iran under siege both security-wise and policy-wise,” Lapid said.