Direct From Tel Aviv to Mecca? Israel Tries to Arrange Hajj Flights for Muslim Pilgrims

The 6,000 Israeli Muslims who make the annual trip to Mecca usually have to endure a 1,000-mile bus journey through Jordan and the Saudi Arabian desert

A Muslim worshiper prays as pilgrims walk around the Kaaba in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 22, 2017.
A Muslim worshiper prays as pilgrims walk around the Kaaba in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, June 22, 2017. Amr Nabil/AP

Israel is attempting to make history by trying to organize direct flights for its country's Muslim citizens to travel to Mecca as part the Hajj pilgrimage, an Israeli minister told Bloomberg on Thursday.

Israel's Communications Minister Ayoub Kara has been at the forefront of the efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia's leaders to allow flights from Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion International Airport. “Reality has changed,” Kara said in an interview this week with Bloomberg. “This is a good time to make the request, and I’m working hard on it.”

The move comes two months after U.S. President Donald Trump boarded the first ever known flight between the two countries, flying to Tel Aviv after his visit to Saudi Arabia. Israel and Saudi Arabia have never had formal diplomatic relations, but have been pushed closer together as the question of how to deal with their common enemy Iran has taken on more urgency.

If successful, such trips would save Israel's Muslims a 1,000-mile bus journey across Jordan and the Saudi Arabian desert. Approximately 17 percent of Israel's population is Muslim and around 6,000 make the pilgrimage to Mecca every year.

Speaking to Bloomberg from Jerusalem, Kara said that he’d been in contact with government officials in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other countries about the groundbreaking plan and said that they’re “ready to do it." Kara explained that due to the possible political implications, the matter is incredibly sensitive and "still a matter of negotiation.”

Britain's The Times reported last month that the two countries were negotiating the establishment of economic ties that would include allowing Israeli businesses to operate in the Gulf and letting Israel's El Al airline fly over Saudi airspace. Allowing Hajj pilgrims to travel to Mecca by direct flight may could constitute a feasible first step.

Over the past two years there have also been reports in Arabic-language media that Saudi Arabia's new crown prince, anti-Iranian hardliner Mohammed bin Salman, had met with Israeli officials.

According to the reports, one such meeting took place in Eilat in 2015, and another on the margins of the Arab summit in Jordan this March. There are also regular meetings between Saudi and Israeli officers in the joint war room where Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States coordinate.