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Evvel Inconceivable, Officials’ Visits Highlight Warming Saudi-Israeli Ties

Parallel visits this week by an Israeli minister to Saudi Arabia and a Saudi envoy to the Israeli-occupied West Bank have highlighted the fast-warming ties between the Jewish state and the most powerful Arab country.

In the first-ever public visit by an Israeli minister to the Arab kingdom, Haim Katz, the Israeli tourism minister, attended a multilateral tourism conference in Riyadh on Tuesday and Wednesday that was organized by the United Nations.

Simultaneously, the Saudi ambassador to the Palestinians, Naif al-Sudairi, traveled through an Israeli border checkpoint to visit the West Bank, where he met with the leaders of the Palestinian Authority, the organization that administers just under 40 percent of the Israeli-controlled territory.

Experts said the visit by Mr. Sudairi, who is based in neighboring Jordan, was the first known visit by a Saudi official to the region since Israel captured it from Jordan in the 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Inconceivable for most of Israel’s history, the two visits symbolized how Israel and Saudi Arabia are gradually setting the stage for the formalization of their relationship, amid escalating efforts by the United States to broker a deal between the two countries.

“You are seeing things that could not even be imagined several years ago,” Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, said in a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

A handout photo released by Israel on Wednesday showing Haim Katz, the tourism minister, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.Credit…Israeli Ministry of Tourism, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Saudi Arabia has never recognized the Jewish state since it was founded in 1948, preferring — like most Arab countries — to ostracize Israel until it agrees to allow the creation of a Palestinian state.

Now, its leaders have signaled that they are considering recognizing Israel despite a nearly decade-long lull in peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Shared fears of Iran, coupled with mutual desire for greater trade links and military cooperation, helped seal three diplomatic deals, brokered in 2020 by the Trump administration, between Israel and three Arab states.

Three years later, the Biden administration is trying to mediate an even bigger deal between Israel and the Saudis — a deeply symbolic shift that experts say would pave the way for the rest of the Muslim world to follow suit.

Talk of normalization is “for the first time, real,” Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, said in an interview last week with Fox News.

“Every day we get closer,” the prince added.

In exchange for normalization, Riyadh wants the United States and Israel to support the creation of a civil nuclear program on Saudi soil, and seeks greater military support from Washington.

The Saudis also want Israel to grant concessions to the Palestinians, though diplomats say it is not yet clear what exactly Riyadh will ask for.

During his visit to the Palestinian Authority on Tuesday, Mr. Sudairi, the ambassador, said that the Arab Peace Initiative — a Saudi-sponsored proposal from 2002 that called for the establishment of Palestinian state — remained “a cornerstone of any future agreement.”

But Prince Mohammed left more room for maneuvering in his interview last week. He said any deal should “ease the life of the Palestinians,” a vaguer formulation that analysts said might refer to increased financial aid for the Palestinian Authority, rather than full sovereignty.

Any support for a Saudi nuclear program would meet resistance among some U.S. and Israeli politicians and officials who fear that Saudi Arabia might at some point use the technology to create a nuclear bomb.

President Biden with the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last year. Riyadh’s wishes in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel include support for the creation of a civil nuclear program on Saudi soil.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Similarly, any concession to the Palestinians would set off anger within the Israeli governing coalition, which is the most stridently nationalist in Israeli history. But the Saudi government risks enraging its own citizens, as well as the wider Muslim world, if it normalizes ties with Israel for too small a benefit to the Palestinians.

The delicate situation was reflected in Mr. Sudairi’s last-minute decision on Wednesday to cancel a visit to the Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a holy site sacred to both Jews and Muslims that is controlled and policed by Israel. Visiting the site under Israeli escort risked giving implicit recognition to Israeli control of the site.

In a separate development, the U.S. government announced on Wednesday that from November onward Israelis would be allowed to enter the United States without a visa. The move, which had been under negotiation for years, is partly the result of Israel’s recent decision to allow American citizens of Palestinian origin — except several hundred living in the Gaza Strip — to enter Israel without a visa.

Warmly welcomed in Israel, the move is one of several recent measures made by the Biden administration that have eased tensions with Mr. Netanyahu.

U.S. officials, including President Biden himself, had expressed frustration with Mr. Netanyahu over his contentious efforts to limit the power of Israel’s Supreme Court and his entrenchment of Israeli control over the West Bank.

But the visa waiver decision, coupled with the Saudi mediation and Mr. Biden’s decision last week to invite Mr. Netanyahu to the White House, have underscored how the fundamental contours of the U.S.-Israel partnership remain unchanged, despite disagreements between the two leaders.

Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel.

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