Israel has expressed its optimism that Saudi Arabia would permit direct flights for its Muslim citizens to make the Haj pilgrimage, which is set to begin next month. The move would signify another step towards normalizing relations between the two countries. Although Saudi Arabia showed approval for Israel’s forging of ties with Gulf neighbours UAE and Bahrain in 2020, it has so far abstained from doing so, claiming that Palestinian goals for statehood must be addressed first. Furthermore, Riyadh’s recent fence-mending with regional rival Iran has clouded any such prospects, along with its strains with US President Joe Biden and the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right Israeli government.
Yair Lapid, Netanyahu’s centrist predecessor, stated on March 10 that he had secured Saudi consent for direct Haj flights from Israel when he was prime minister last year. Additionally, a US official predicted such flights in a June interview with Reuters. However, Riyadh has yet to confirm the approval of such flights. When asked whether direct flights would take place for the upcoming June-August pilgrimage to the holy Saudi city of Makkah, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that a request had been submitted. “This issue is under discussion. I cannot tell you if there is any progress,” he said in an interview with Israel’s Army Radio.
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Currently, Muslims from Israel and the Palestinian territories travel to Mecca via third-party countries, resulting in additional expenses and trouble. Since 2020, Saudi Arabia has allowed Israeli airlines to fly over it to UAE and Bahrain, and this corridor has since been expanded to include other destinations. If direct flights are permitted, it would make it easier and less expensive for Muslim citizens of Israel to make the Haj pilgrimage, which is considered a religious obligation for those who are able to do so.