A delegation of Israeli officials has travelled publicly to Saudi Arabia for the first time, in the latest sign of increasingly overt ties between the two countries.
The Israeli delegation, led by Amir Weissbrod, a deputy director-general in the Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, will be observers at a Unesco world heritage meeting. They are not on a bilateral visit.
But this is the latest sign of how ties between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations, have developed in recent months, as the administration of US president Joe Biden has spearheaded a push to normalise their relations as part of a deal that would reshape Middle Eastern geopolitics.
Under the complex — and highly delicate — deal being discussed by US and Saudi officials, the US would provide Saudi Arabia with security guarantees and support for a civilian nuclear programme.
In return, Saudi Arabia, one of the leaders of the Arab world and home to Islam’s two holiest sites, would normalise relations with Israel in a move that could potentially persuade other Muslim countries to follow suit.
To complete the deal, Saudi officials are also likely demand that Israel makes concessions to the Palestinians, and three senior Palestinian officials visited Riyadh last week to discuss their position.
A Palestinian official told the Financial Times that the Palestinians were seeking US support for full membership of the UN, where they currently have observer status.
Palestinian officials are also seeking a freeze on Israeli settlement expansion as well as administrative control of more of the West Bank, which they seek as the heart of a future state but which Israel has occupied since 1967.
Saudi Arabia refused to join several other Arab states, including the neighbouring United Arab Emirates, when they normalised relations with Israel in 2020. Saudi officials had said they would demand bigger concessions, both from the US and Israel.
The talks have gained momentum since June but remain fraught with difficulties. These include doubt over whether Israel’s far-right government would make significant concessions to the Palestinians, and whether the US would accede to Saudi demands to be allowed to enrich uranium for a nuclear power plant.
An Israeli official previously told the FT that settlement freezes or territorial concessions to the Palestinians were unlikely.