Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara says Tel Aviv is seeking direct flights to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj pilgrimage as the two sides move closer to forge a model of relations.
In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this week, Kara expressed hope that Israeli Muslims would be able to fly directly from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport to Saudi Arabia, instead of enduring the 1,000-mile bus route across the Jordan River and through the Saudi desert to reach the holy city of Mecca.
“Reality has changed,” Kara said. “This is a good time to make the request, and I’m working hard on it.”
Kara also said that he had spoken to government officials in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries about the Hajj plan, adding that they were “ready to do it, but it’s very sensitive and it’s still a matter of negotiation.”
A non-stop flight from Tel Aviv to Mecca is ideal, but the route may have a stop in Jordan or another country, he pointed out.
The Israeli minister further noted that another topic under discussion is the prospect of Saudi Arabia issuing temporary travel documents to Israeli pilgrims to replace the present Jordanian-issued documents.
An estimated 6,000 Israeli Arabs make the Hajj journey every year.
Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have formal diplomatic relations or airline links, but they have been increasingly tilting toward one another in recent years.
Last month, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s minister of military affairs, called for a deal with Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, as a prerequisite for any agreement to resolve the decades-long conflict with the Palestinians.
Additionally, Israel’s Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz urged Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to invite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to Riyadh to establish full diplomatic relations.
The Times also cited unnamed Arab and American sources as saying that Tel Aviv and Riyadh were in clandestine talks to establish official economic ties for the first time since the entity was created on the Palestinian territories some 69 years ago.
Forming economic connections between the two sides could begin by allowing Israeli companies to open shops in the Arab kingdom, or granting Israel’s El Al airline permission to fly over Saudi airspace, the report said.