Saudi Arabia on Friday opened its airspace to "all air carriers," signalling the end of its longstanding ban on Israeli flights overflying its territory — a key step toward normalization between the two nations as President Joe Biden visits the region.
In a statement posted to Twitter hours before Biden is set to become the first US leader to fly directly from Israel to the kingdom, Saudi Arabia's General Authority of Civil Aviation said it was announcing "the decision to open the Kingdom's airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the Authority for overflying."
The announcement is an incremental step toward the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and builds on the strong but informal ties the erstwhile foes have developed recent years over their shared concerns about Iran's growing influence in the region.
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has allowed flights between Israel and Gulf states to cross through its airspace. In 2020, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly flew to Saudi Arabia for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and last week several Israeli defense reporters visited the kingdom and published news reports about their welcome.
Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid stood side-by-side Thursday and declared they would not allow Iran to become a nuclear power. They parted ways, though, on how to get there.
Biden, in a joint news conference after a one-on-one meeting with the Israeli leader, said he still wants to give diplomacy a chance. Moments earlier, Lapid insisted that words alone won't thwart Tehran's nuclear ambitions.
While Biden suggested his patience with Iran was running low, he held out hope that Iran can be persuaded to rejoin a dormant deal intended to prevent it from building a nuclear weapon.
"I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome," Biden said on the second day of a four-day visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia. It's his first trip to the Middle East as president.
Biden's emphasis on a diplomatic solution contrasted with Lapid, who said Iran must face a real threat of force before it will agree to give up on its nuclear ambitions.
"Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them,” Lapid said. “The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program the free world will use force.”
Lapid suggested that he and Biden were in agreement, despite his tougher rhetoric toward Iran.
“I don't think there's a light between us,” he said. “We cannot allow Iran to become nuclear.”
Biden, too, said, “We will not, let me say it again, we will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.”
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi lashed out at the U.S. and "its regional allies” for stoking instability in the region, state-run IRNA news agency reported.
“Any mistake by the Americans and their allies in the region and the world will be met with a harsh and regrettable response,” Raisi said.
Biden warned that his patience is wearing thin for Iran to rejoin the nuclear deal, a day after saying he'd be willing to use force against Tehran as a last resort. The president said the U.S. had laid out for the Iranian leadership a path to return to the nuclear deal and was still waiting for a response.
“When that will come, I'm not certain,” Biden said. "But we're not going to wait forever.”
Resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal brokered by Barack Obama's administration and abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018 was a key priority for Biden as he entered office. But administration officials have become increasingly pessimistic about the chances of getting Tehran back into compliance.
Israeli officials have sought to use Biden's first visit to the Middle East as president to underscore that Iran's nuclear program has progressed too far and encourage the Biden administration to scuttle efforts to revive the deal.
Israel opposed the original nuclear deal because its limitations on Iran's nuclear enrichment would expire and the agreement didn't address Iran's ballistic missile program or military activities in the region.
Instead of the U.S. reentering the deal, Israel would prefer strict sanctions in hopes of leading to a more sweeping accord.
The one-on-one talks between Biden and Lapid marked the centerpiece of a 48-hour visit by Biden aimed at strengthening already tight relations between the U.S and Israel. The leaders issued a joint declaration emphasizing military cooperation and a commitment to keeping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
In the joint statement, the United States said it is ready to use "all elements of its national power" to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.
Iran announced last week that it has enriched uranium to 60 per cent purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade quality.
The joint declaration could hold important symbolic importance for Biden's upcoming meeting with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia as he seeks to strengthen a regionwide alliance against Iran.
The US president, who is set to arrive in Saudi Arabia on Friday, said he also stressed to Lapid the importance of Israel becoming "totally integrated" in the region.
Israel during the Trump administration signed on to the Abraham Accords, declarations of diplomatic and economic normalization signed by Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates that were signature foreign policy achievement for the Republican president. For Israel to come to such an agreement with the Saudis, an economic and Islamic epicenter in the Mideast, would be even more significant.