Israeli minister arrives in Saudi Arabia in first public visit

The Israeli tourism minister has travelled to Saudi Arabia for a United Nations conference, his office said, describing the visit as the first public trip to the country by an Israeli cabinet member.

Haim Katz’s two-day visit to Riyadh comes as Saudi Arabia is pursuing a possible United States-brokered deal that would forge formal bilateral relations with Israel. Katz is leading a delegation as part of a UN World Tourism Organisation event.

“Tourism is a bridge between nations,” Katz said, according to a statement from his office. “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,” he added. The Saudi government did not immediately confirm the visit.

Washington has urged its Middle East allies Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalise diplomatic relations, following on from similar deals involving the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. The Palestinians have labelled those US-brokered agreements a betrayal of their plight and quest for statehood.

On Tuesday, Katz reached Riyadh leading a delegation to attend a United Nations World Tourism Organisation event, the minister’s office said.

“I will act to create cooperation to advance tourism and Israel’s foreign relations,” Katz said in a statement.

The Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, last week told US network Fox that the kingdom was getting “closer” to a deal with Israel but insisted that the Palestinian cause remains “very important” for Riyadh. In recent months Israel has already sent delegations to Saudi Arabia to participate in sports and other events, including a UNESCO meeting.

Saudi envoy in Palestine

Also on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia sent its first delegation in three decades to the occupied West Bank to reassure Palestinians that it will defend their cause even as it forges closer ties with Israel.

“The Palestinian matter is a fundamental pillar,” Nayef al-Sudairi, who headed the Saudi delegation and new ambassador to the Palestinians, said after meeting top Palestinian diplomat Riyad al-Maliki in Ramallah for talks and to present his credentials.

“And it’s certain that the Arab initiative, which was presented by the kingdom in 2002, is a cornerstone of any upcoming deal.”

The 2002 initiative proposed Arab relations with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal from the West Bank, east Jerusalem, Gaza and the Golan Heights, and a just resolution for the Palestinians. Sudairi’s delegation, which crossed overland from Jordan, was the first from Saudi Arabia to visit the West Bank since the 1993 Oslo Accords. The Accords were meant to lead to an independent Palestinian state, but years of stalled negotiations and deadly violence have left any peaceful resolution a distant dream.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, 87, last week again stressed strong reservations to Arab countries building ties with Israel.

“Those who think that peace can prevail in the Middle East without the Palestinian people enjoying their full, legitimate national rights would be mistaken,” Abbas told the UN General Assembly in New York.

When asked whether there will be a Saudi embassy in Jerusalem, Sudairi recalled that there used to be a one in the Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah, and said that “hopefully there will be an embassy there” again. Meanwhile at a ceremony to mark the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said “many states in the Middle East want peace with Israel”. Netanyahu’s hard-right government has been expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank which are deemed illegal under international law. Recent violence has lead to the killing of at least 242 Palestinians and 32 Israelis so far this year, according to official sources on both sides. The United States, which has brokered talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the past, has made no major push toward a two-state solution since a failed effort nearly a decade ago.

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