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In first, Israeli minister leads official delegation to Saudi Arabia

Tourism Minister Haim Katz arrived Tuesday in Saudi Arabia for a United Nations conference, becoming the first Israeli minister to lead a delegation to the kingdom, according to his office.

Katz is on a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia as part of a United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) event that coincides with World Tourism Day on September 27.

“Tourism is a bridge between nations,” Katz said in a statement. “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 said.

Katz’s visit comes as Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to be edging closer to a normalization deal.

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US President Joe Biden’s administration is actively engaging Riyadh and Jerusalem to try to broker a normalization deal between the two countries. As part of the framework, Saudi Arabia is also asking the US for a major mutual defense pact and significant arms deals, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares to use a red marker on a map of ‘The New Middle East,’ as he addresses the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Friday, September 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations in his address last Friday that Israel was “on the cusp” of a historic deal with Saudi Arabia.

Earlier in the week, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Fox News that “every day we get closer” to his country normalizing ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process and declaring that Saudi Arabia will have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

Earlier this month, an Israeli delegation of nine staffers flew to Saudi Arabia as observers to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. The delegation was led by the head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority and included diplomats, according to an Israeli official.

According to Hebrew media reports Tuesday, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi is expected to visit Saudi Arabia next week, as is Knesset Economic Affairs Committee chairman David Bitan. Like Katz, both Karhi and Bitan are members of the ruling Likud party.

The delegation from Israel attends the UNESCO Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee in Riyadh on September 11, 2023. (Rania Sanjar/AFP)

Israel reportedly backed off its attempts to have Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch attend the conference after the Saudis introduced obstacles during the visa process.

In March, Axios reported that Saudi Arabia barred Cohen from leading a delegation to the UN World Tourism Organization conference. Cohen was unable to travel after the Saudis refused to discuss security arrangements, according to unnamed Israeli officials.

In July, a team of Israeli gamers was allowed into Saudi Arabia to participate in the video game version of the FIFA World Cup.