Unlike Biden, the Saudis deny that opening the airspace is a step toward relations with Israel

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia – Unlike departing US President Joe Biden, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said on Saturday that Riyadh’s decision to open its airspace to all civilian overflights “has nothing to do with diplomatic relations with Israel” and “has nothing to do with any of the relations.” diplomacy with Israel. In preparation for any further steps towards normalization.

Prince Faisal appeared determined to pour cold water on expectations announced in Jerusalem and Washington that the kingdom’s decision, announced Thursday, to open its airspace to all civil airlines – a move that would allow flights to and from Israel to China and India over a much shorter period. And less expensive ways – it was a first step towards formal relations with Israel.

“No, this has nothing to do with diplomatic relations with Israel,” the minister said at a press conference after the Gulf Cooperation Council + 3 regional summit in Jeddah. “The issue of overflight is a decision we made…in the interest of [of] Providing connectivity between the countries of the world, we hope to make the lives of some travelers easier. It is by no means a precursor to any further steps.”

In a speech late Friday night after bilateral meetings here with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Biden called the overflight decision by Riyadh “a great deal, not only symbolic, but substantial.”

“This is the first concrete step on the path to what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations” between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Biden added.

In a similar context, Prime Minister Yair Lapid welcomed, on Friday morning, the step of “opening Saudi airspace to Israeli airlines” as “the first official step for normalization with Saudi Arabia.”

I thank the Saudi leadership for opening Saudi airspace. Lapid added that this is only the first step.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Saudi foreign minister’s comments.

US President Joe Biden takes leave from Prime Minister Yair Lapid before leaving Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport on July 15, 2022 for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Riyadh announced the opening of the airspace a day before Biden unveiled the planned withdrawal of a monitoring force securing a pair of Red Sea islands while allowing them to be transferred from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The withdrawal process was American-brokered, and required Israeli authorization because the presence of the observer force along with ensuring freedom of movement around the islands for the Jewish state was part of the conditions for Jerusalem to be ceded to Egypt as part of a 1979 peace treaty.

Accordingly, the Biden administration pushed Riyadh to take what it framed as steps toward normalization with Israel. The first was to allow Israeli overflights, and the second was to allow direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims. The latest request has yet to be finalized, as the White House was forced to water down its announcement Friday on the island’s relocation by saying it “welcomed the relevant steps under discussion to include direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Hajj on approved carriers.”

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir also sought to dampen speculation about Saudi-Israeli normalization, telling CNN in an interview on Thursday that while such a move was a “possible” and a “strategic choice,” a two-state solution was a “request” Israel and the Palestinians had before That Riyadh consolidate its relations with Jerusalem.

Also during his press conference on Saturday, Prince Faisal responded that he was not aware of any talks at the Jeddah summit regarding Israel’s inclusion in an integrated air defense network in the Middle East – an initiative that Washington and Jerusalem have publicly discussed in recent months.

There was no discussion of a Gulf-Israeli defense alliance or anything like that. At least I am not aware of such discussions,” the foreign minister said.

It is clear from the picture: Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces, General Dr. Muhammad Husayn Bagheri, left, and the army commander, General. Abdolrahim Mousavi visits an army drone base tunnel in the heart of the western Zagros Mountains, Saturday, May 28, 2022 (Iranian Army via Associated Press)

Hours earlier, a senior Biden administration official briefing White House reporters at the summit said Israel’s inclusion in the integrated air defense network it hopes to create with Middle Eastern allies would be hugely beneficial.

The US official said, while avoiding a direct response to a question about whether there has been any progress in advancing the initiative.

The idea of ​​creating a joint air defense network between Israel and its Arab neighbors was raised during the Negev Summit of the foreign ministers of Israel, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt in March.

In late June, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said an air defense agreement between Israel and its regional allies to fight Iran was “already in the works.”

During a briefing to lawmakers in the Knesset’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee, Gantz said that Israel and its regional allies – under US leadership – are developing a joint defense pact to protect against the threat of drones and missiles from Tehran and its regional proxies.

The agreement, which Gantz called “Mid-Air Defense for the Middle East,” aims to link air defense systems to combat Iran’s growing use of drones and missiles in the Middle East.

Defense Secretary Benny Gantz, right, guides US President Joe Biden with the wing of a drone intercepted by an iron-beam laser defense system, while Prime Minister Yair Lapid (left) looks on at Ben Gurion Airport, July 13, 2022. Hermoney/DoD)

While the defense secretary hoped there would be an evolution in efforts during Biden’s trip to the Middle East this week, a senior US official told The Times of Israel beforehand that no announcement should be expected while the president is in Israel or Saudi Arabia.

However, the senior administration official told reporters Saturday that the United States hopes there will be “additional announcements” in the coming weeks regarding the Middle East Integrated Air Defense System.

“Our allies and partners here in the region … have air missile defense capabilities. We are responsible for contributing to a lot of those capabilities, and we believe that … there are [a] Big advantage to trying to see if we can tie some of these capabilities together,” the US official added.

Biden himself said in his remarks at the GCC+3 summit that the United States is “integrating air defenses and early warning systems to ensure our ability to defeat airborne threats.”

Speaking more broadly about the importance of regional integration, Biden said: “The United States will build political, economic, and security links between the United States — between United States partners where possible, while respecting each nation’s sovereignty and independent choices. Integration and interdependence — these are the core themes of our meeting today. “.

Biden returned home from Jeddah on Saturday afternoon, after a five-day trip that began in Israel and included a Friday visit to the West Bank.

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