TEL AVIV – Israel is working to persuade Saudi Arabia to allow direct flights from Tel Aviv to Mecca for Israeli Muslims making the Hajj pilgrimage, building on the same flight route taken by President Donald Trump on his trip to the region in May.
Despite there being no formal diplomatic relations or airline routes between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara hopes that the changing tides in the region, boosted by the Trump administration’s efforts to strengthen cooperation, will change that, Bloomberg news reported on Wednesday.
“Reality has changed,” Kara told Bloomberg. “This is a good time to make the request, and I’m working hard on it.”
At present, most of the 6,000 Arab Israelis who make the Hajj pilgrimage travel by bus nearly 1,000 miles across the Jordan River and through the Saudi desert to reach Mecca.
The pilgrims would be given temporary travel documents since Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israeli passports, Kara said.
Trump made history in May when Air Force One became the first plane to make a direct flight from Mecca to Tel Aviv. Other planes accompanying Air Force One made a stop in Cyprus first.
Saudi Arabia has in the past offered lifting air traffic restrictions as a reward for Israel to cement a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Both Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have welcomed Saudi involvement in a future peace deal.
“There’s a long history of Hajj travel being used as a confidence-building gesture, partly because it has a purity of religious purpose, and yet politics are involved because borders are not open in the Middle East,” said Scott Lasensky, a visiting fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a former policy adviser at the U.S. Embassy in Israel.
Kara, a Druze Arab, said he believes Gulf nations are on the way to strengthening commercial ties with Israel regardless of whether there is a peace process with the Palestinians.
“For the countries in this region, what provides more defense than tanks and jets?” said Kara. “They need cyber-defense, and that’s an integral part of my office.”