RIYADH : 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 Organization 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 similar deals involving the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.
The Palestinians have labelled those United States-brokered agreements a betrayal of their plight and quest for statehood.
On Tuesday, Katz reached Riyadh leading a delegation to attend the UN 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.
Reporting from the occupied East Jerusalem, Al Jazeera’s Rob Reynolds said that Katz’s visit to Saudi Arabia was “extremely important” because it was “extremely unprecedented”.
“Relations between the two countries have been frozen for many years, but now.. they are moving much closer, much faster,” said Reynolds, adding that Israeli media reported the country’s communications minister is expected to visit Saudi Arabia next week.
The Saudi crown prince and country’s 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 meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
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,” Naif bin Bandar Al Sudairi, who headed the Saudi delegation and is the 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 [Peace] Initiative, which was presented by the kingdom in 2002, is a cornerstone of any upcoming deal.”
Al Jazeera’s Reynolds said that the Saudi position has always been to normalise relations but only after Israel agrees to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state along the 1967 borders and as East Jerusalem as its capital.
“Saudi officials are talking about that but it appears to be no longer the precondition that they had set before,” he added, explaining that this makes many Palestinians fearful of what is yet to come.
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.
Al 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 about 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, Al Sudairi recalled that there used to be one in the occupied East 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 illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
More than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the start of this year, according to the health ministry. At least 35 Israelis have also been killed in Palestinian attacks during the same period.