NABLUS: This picture taken around sunrise yesterday shows the Askar (foreground) Palestinian refugee camp in “Area A” of the West Bank (full Palestinian civil and security control), Beit Fureik (background), partially between “Area B” (Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control) and “Area C” (full Israeli civil and security control). - AFP

JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH: Israel yesterday officially gave its citizens the right to travel to Saudi Arabia for religious and business visits, in the latest sign of warming ties between the two states. The interior ministry's announcement will have limited practical impact, as Israelis had previously been travelling to Saudi Arabia via third countries, especially Jordan. But Israel had never granted official approval for such travel by both Jewish and Muslim Israelis.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri "signed for the first time an order enabling an exit permit for Israelis to Saudi Arabia", his office said. Israel has a peace deal with two Arab countries - Jordan and Egypt - but its occupation of Palestinian territory has long served as a major factor preventing similar accords with the rest of the Arab world. The interior ministry said its move, coordinated with the security and diplomatic services, approves travel to Saudi "for religious purposes during the hajj and the umrah (Muslim pilgrimages)".

It said Israel would also allow its citizens to travel to Saudi Arabia "to participate in business meetings or seek investments" for trips not exceeding 90 days. Business travellers must have "arranged their entry to Saudi Arabia and received an invitation from a governmental source", the interior ministry said. There was no indication of a corresponding policy change from the Saudi side, but there have in recent months been gestures pointing to warming ties between Israel and Gulf states.

Earlier yesterday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Mohammed Al-Issa, head of the Muslim World League based in Makkah in Saudi Arabia, for attending commemorations in Poland this week marking 75 years since the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. "This is another sign of change in the attitude of Islamic bodies and, of course, the Arab states toward the Holocaust and the Jewish people," he told reporters.

Following the cabinet meeting, Netanyahu was headed to Washington to discuss US President Donald Trump's project for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians have rejected Trump's initiative but the US hopes Saudi Arabia can pressure the Palestinian Authority to accept it, boosted by an economic component of the peace plan announced in June. Common concerns over Iran are widely seen as having fostered incipient ties between Israel and several Arab states, especially in the Gulf.

Yoel Guzansky, a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies, called Israel's announcement on the Saudi travel permits "normalization kernels" between Israel and Gulf states, which he called "the worst-kept secret in the Middle East". Guzansky noted that while Israel no doubt timed the announcement to coincide with Netanyahu's trip to Washington, its publication -especially ahead of the launch of the peace plan - could be "vexing" to the Saudis.

"The fact that Israelis go there quietly is one thing. Once it's in the open, that can embarrass them" and cause trouble not only with conservative elements in the kingdom but also with regional foes such as Qatar and Iran, he said. The increasing Israeli presence in Gulf states - including sports competitions and the upcoming Dubai expo - could derive from "American pressure to make (positive) gestures toward Israel", Guzansky noted.

Meanwhile, Palestinian leaders threatened yesterday to withdraw from key provisions of the Oslo Accords, which define arrangements with Israel, if Trump announces his Middle East peace plan next week. Trump was scheduled to unveil the plan ahead of his meeting in Washington this week with Netanyahu. Netanyahu, who has called Trump "the greatest friend that Israel has ever had", said he hoped to "make history" in Washington this week.

But the Palestinian leadership was not invited to the talks and has rejected Trump's initiative amid tensions with the US president over his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital. World powers have long agreed that Jerusalem's fate should be settled through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat told AFP that the Palestine Liberation Organization reserved the right "to withdraw from the interim agreement" of the Oslo pact if Trump unveils his plan.

The Trump initiative will turn Israel's "temporary occupation (of Palestinian territory) into a permanent occupation", Erekat said. The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, signed in Washington in 1995, sought to put into practice the first Oslo peace deal agreed two years earlier. Sometimes called Oslo II, the interim agreement set out the scope of Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. The interim pact was only supposed to last five years while a permanent agreement was finalized but it has tacitly been rolled over for more than two decades.

Israel has occupied east Jerusalem and the West Bank since the 1967 Six-Day War. More than 600,000 Israelis now live there in settlements considered illegal under international law. The Trump administration last year announced that it no longer considered Israel's settlement of civilians in the West Bank as "inconsistent with international law", further outraging the Palestinians.

Trump's peace initiative has been in the works since 2017, and its economic component was unveiled in June, calling for $50 billion in international investment in the Palestinian territories and neighboring Arab countries over 10 years. Despite this apparent economic incentive, Palestinian leaders have made clear that they no longer recognize Washington's historic role as mediator in the conflict, given Trump's repeated backing of Israeli demands. "The US administration will not find a single Palestinian who supports this project," the Palestinian foreign ministry said in a statement yesterday. "Trump's plan is the plot of the century to liquidate the Palestinian cause."

Netanyahu's political rival Benny Gantz has also received an invitation to attend the White House talks. Gantz also showered Trump with praise during a news conference. "I wish to thank President Trump for his dedication and determination in defending the security interests that both Israel and the US share," Gantz said. Trump's planned separate meetings with Netanyahu and Gantz come a little more than a month before new Israeli elections, with polls showing Netanyahu's right-wing Likud and Gantz's centrist Blue and White party running neck-and-neck.

Israeli media speculated that Trump had chosen to unveil his plan in support of Netanyahu's election bid - the third in a year, but the first since Netanyahu was charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate corruption cases. Netanyahu is seeking immunity from Israeli lawmakers through hearings due to start this week. "Immediately after news of the [peace] plan was reported, it became plainly evident based on the reactions that this wasn't a Trump plan, but a Bibi-Trump plot," analyst Ben-Dror Yemini wrote in yesterday's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. "Yet another election ploy that was designed to extricate Netanyahu from the clutches of his immunity hearings." - Agencies