Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz arrived in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday for a UN conference, making him the first senior Israeli official to publicly visit the Kingdom, which comes as the US is pushing for a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal.
“Tourism is a bridge between nations,” Katz said, according to Al Jazeera. “Cooperation in the field of tourism has the potential to bring hearts together, and economic progress. I will work to advance cooperation, tourism, and the foreign relations of Israel.”
As Katz arrived in Saudi Arabia, a Saudi delegation arrived in the West Bank the West Bank. Riyadh has said that any normalization deal with Israel must include advancements toward a Palestinian state. According to Middle East Eye, the visit marked the first for Saudi officials since the 1993 Oslo Accords.
During the visit, Saudi Ambassador to Jordan Nayef al-Sudairi, who has been appointed to be an envoy to Palestine, said Riyadh is “working towards establishing a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.” Any agreement toward Palestinian statehood will be hard to get as the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu includes extremist settlers who want to annex the entire West Bank.
The two notable visits come after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in an interview with Fox News that “every day, we get closer” to a Saudi-Israel normalization deal, and he denied reports that said Riyadh pulled out of the talks. “For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part,” he said.
The Biden administration is pushing hard for the normalization deal, which looks to build on similar agreements with Bahrain and the UAE, known as the Abraham Accords. As a condition for normalizing with Israel, Riyadh is making significant demands of the US, including stronger security guarantees and help starting a civilian nuclear program.
The Biden administration is discussing the idea of a mutual defense treaty with Saudi Arabia, which risks the US getting involved in another Middle East war in the future or an escalation of the war in Yemen, where a de facto ceasefire between the Saudis and Houthis has held since April 2022. According to The New York Times, MbS regards the mutual defense treaty with the US “as the most important element in his talks with the Biden administration about Israel.”
The US and Israel envision the Abraham Accords creating an anti-Iran alliance in the region between Israel and the US’s Arab allies. But the recent Iran-Saudi China-brokered normalization deal has thrown a wrench into the plan as Riyadh and Tehran are working on repairing relations.