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Israel seeking Saudi flight deal to bring pilgrims to Mecca
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Israel seeking Saudi flight deal to bring pilgrims to Mecca

Israel is trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to allow it to send special Hajj pilgrimage flights to Mecca.

Instead of enduring the 1,000-mile bus route across the Jordan River and through the Saudi desert to reach Islam’s most sacred shrine, Israel hopes its Muslim citizens will be able to fly directly into the kingdom from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, Communications Minister Ayoob Kara said. Just two months ago, US President Donald Trump broke a longstanding taboo by flying between the two nations, which do not have formal diplomatic relations or airline links but have drawn closer in recent years due to a shared enemy, Iran.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, has dangled the prospect of air traffic and other commercial ties between the two countries since proposing its Arab Peace Initiative in 2002. In return, Israel would have to accept a Palestinian state and withdraw from territories it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war, something it isn’t willing to do. But their suspicion of Iran’s ambitions has made cooperation an open secret.

Facilitating the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of several proposed sweeteners aimed at inducing Israel to make negotiating concessions to the Palestinians, Kara said. Others include lifting some trade restrictions, improving telecommunications links with the Gulf and giving overflight permission to Israeli air carriers, saving them time and money on flights to Asia.

“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.

About 6,000 Israeli Arabs make the Hajj journey every year, most on group bus tours, though a few hundred are allowed to fly to Saudi Arabia from Jordan’s Queen Alia International Airport.

 Click here to read the full article in Bloomberg

Thursday, July 13, 2017
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