Second Israeli minister in Saudi Arabia amid normalization buzz

RIYADH (AFP): An Israeli government minister arrived on Monday in Saudi Arabia for a United Nations conference, his office said, amid mounting speculation that the two countries will normalize ties.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi travelled to Riyadh for a meeting of the Universal Postal Union, a specialized UN agency intended to facilitate international cooperation in the postal sector.

During his visit — the second by an Israeli minister to the Gulf kingdom in less than a week — Karhi is expected to give a speech and meet with officials including the US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s communications minister, a statement from his office said.

He is heading a 14-member delegation that includes lawmaker David Bitan and representatives of the foreign ministry, the statement said.

Saudi Arabia, home to the holiest sites in Islam, in Mecca and Medina, has never recognised Israel and long insisted it would not do so without a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a just settlement for Palestinian refugees.

However the administration of US President Joe Biden is pushing for a landmark deal that could reorder the Middle East.

Riyadh is bargaining hard for security guarantees from Washington as well as assistance with a civilian nuclear programme that would have uranium enrichment capacity.

The Palestinians have warned that they must be taken into account in any deal, and it is unclear what concessions Israel might be willing to make.

Last week the White House said Saudi Arabia and Israeli were moving towards the outline of a deal.

“All sides have hammered out, I think, a basic framework for what, you know, what we might be able to drive at,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

His comments came on the heels of a visit to Riyadh by Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz, who attended a United Nations World Tourism Organization event, becoming the first Israeli minister to head an official delegation to the kingdom.