Israeli Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi arrived in Riyadh on Monday night at the head of a 14-strong delegation, becoming the second minister from the Jewish state to make a visit to the Sunni Muslim kingdom in a week.
Karhi, a Likud Party member and close ally of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is being accompanied by Knesset Economic Affairs Committee chairman David Bitan and representatives of the Foreign Ministry, Communications Ministry and Israel Post.
“It is a great honor to represent the State of Israel in this historic visit to Saudi Arabia. It is especially meaningful to visit during the holiday of Sukkot, a time of renewal, gratitude and blessing in the Jewish faith,” Karhi told JNS in an exclusive statement from Riyadh.
“Our goal is to continue the cooperation between peoples and nations for the benefit of the citizens of the entire world. We are deeply appreciative and grateful to the [Universal Postal Union] and to our Saudi hosts for their incredibly warm and generous hospitality. For the welfare and advancement of all humanity, we will continue to work together to promote cooperation between our people, nations and countries,” he added.
The minister is slated to address the UPU’s 2023 Extraordinary Congress and meet with U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Michael Ratney.
Karhi is also expected to hold bilateral meetings with Saudi colleagues during the trip.
“We’ll meet with representatives from around the world and bring peace between the State of Israel and Saudi Arabia closer,” said Karhi in a video message after landing in Riyadh.
Added Bitan: “Everything starts with small steps, so this is the beginning, and we will see in the future how things develop for the benefit of the State of Israel and peace in the Middle East.”
Saudi officials have tried to make special arrangements for Karhi, who is religious and must eat during the Jewish holiday in a temporary outdoor booth known as a sukkah.
On Tuesday morning, Karhi posted photos to X (formerly Twitter) of his group reciting prayers in a hotel room. The photos included the minister with a Torah scroll, and members of the delegation holding palm fronds associated with Sukkot.
Last week, Tourism Minister Haim Katz became the first Israeli Cabinet minister to be granted an entry visa by the Saudi government, arriving in Riyadh to participate in a conference of the United Nations World Tourism Organization and mark World Tourism Day, celebrated annually on Sept. 27.
The back-to-back ministerial trips are the latest indication that a normalization deal between the two countries, seen as increasingly likely in the coming months, is indeed in the offing.
On Friday, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that Jerusalem and Riyadh have agreed on the contours of a possible U.S.-mediated normalization agreement.
“All sides have hammered out, I think, a basic framework for what, you know, what we might be able to drive at,” he said, amid an ongoing effort to bring the Sunni kingdom into the Abraham Accords.
The 2020 Trump administration-brokered accords normalized relations between Israel and four Arab nations: The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
However, despite Kirby’s statement, there is growing frustration among Israeli and Saudi officials over what they see as an overemphasis by Washington on having Jerusalem make concessions to the Palestinians as a means of moving forward in the normalization process.
Sources familiar with the ongoing talks said the Biden administration’s focus on this has hampered the process’s momentum and obstructed possible breakthroughs.
Over the weekend, Reuters reported that Saudi Arabia is not conditioning a peace deal with Israel on the establishment of a Palestinian state. As part of an agreement, the Palestinians could nonetheless receive a huge influx of Saudi aid as well as Israeli concessions that would fall short of statehood, said the report, citing three unnamed regional officials.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in a recent interview with Fox News that normalization with Israel was “getting closer every day,” and that the kingdom could join the Abraham Accords “with the support from President [Joe] Biden’s administration to get to that point.”
The interview aired the same day that Biden met with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
“I think that under your leadership, Mr. President, we can forge a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” said Netanyahu.
“And I think such a peace would go a long way first to advance the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict, achieve reconciliation between the Islamic world and the Jewish state, and advance a genuine peace between Israel and the Palestinians,” he added.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said that bringing Saudi Arabia into the Abraham Accords would constitute a “quantum leap” for peace in the Middle East.
In his address to the UNGA, he said that a deal with Riyadh would have far-reaching implications, including encouraging other Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel.
He called the Abraham Accords “a pivot of history” and said the whole world is reaping their benefits. “All these are tremendous blessings,” said the premier.