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Minister photographed in Saudi Arabia alongside Syrian counterpart, Taliban official

Tourism Minister Haim Katz was photographed alongside his counterpart from Syria and an official from Afghanistan’s Taliban — neither of which recognize Israel — during his groundbreaking appearance this week at an international conference in Saudi Arabia, according to images published Friday.

In one of the pictures released by the Kan public broadcaster, Katz can be seen standing directly behind Syrian Tourism Minister Mohammed Martini and the unidentified Taliban figure as attendees of the UN World Tourism Organization lined up for a group photo.

But Martini, a hotel and tour operator owner under EU sanctions since 2019, reportedly took exception to being photographed next to Katz and moved away from the Israeli minister to another spot.

Israel and Syria have fought against each other in four wars since the Jewish state’s establishment in 1948. Unlike fellow neighbors Egypt and Jordan, whose armies also previously fought against Israel, the Iran-backed regime in Damascus has not normalized ties with Jerusalem and remains one of the most vocal anti-Zionist states in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The Taliban official however did not shift places and could be seen at Katz’s right in both photographs. It was not clear if the member of the extremist group, which after retaking control of Afghanistan two years ago said it was open to forging ties with all nations besides Israel, was unaware of who Katz was or indifferent to being pictured alongside him.

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The publication of the photos came as Katz returned from Saudi Arabia, which he was the first Israeli minister to lead a delegation to.

“We made a crack in the wall,” Katz said in a statement Friday.

פרסום ראשון: תקרית התמונה המשותפת של שר התיירות הסורי עם השר כץ בסעודיה | כל הפרטים >>> | @kaisos1987

— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) September 29, 2023

The minister said he met with “leaders who Israel still does not have official relations with,” without specifying.

“The curiosity about Israel and the desire to cooperate were evident in every conversation,” Katz added. “Tourism is an economic asset and bridge between nations for dialogue and peace.”

On Wednesday, Katz was welcomed to Riyadh by his Saudi counterpart Ahmed bin Aqil al-Khateeb. While there was no reported meeting between the two, Khateeb publicly noted Katz’s presence in comments at the start of the conference.

“There is a delegation here in the country for the first time. I hope they were received well. Welcome,” said Khateeb. “Everyone in this room understands that tourism is the bridge between people and between cultures.”

Tourism Minister Haim Katz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on September 27, 2023, on the first such high-level public mission to the oil-rich kingdom. (Tourism Ministry via AFP)

The visit by Katz came as Israel and Saudi Arabia seem to be edging closer to a normalization deal.

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 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 for 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.

On Monday, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi will land in Saudi Arabia to attend the Universal Postal Union’s 2023 Extraordinary Congress in Riyadh, his office told The Times of Israel. Karhi will speak at the UN conference, which runs from Sunday to Thursday next week.

Karhi is flying through another country in the region, and has his visa already. He will bring a small delegation with him to the kingdom, which does not recognize Israel.

Knesset Economic Affairs Committee chairman David Bitan is also set to visit Saudi Arabia next week, according to Hebrew media reports. Like Katz, both Karhi and Bitan are members of the ruling Likud party.

AFP contributed to this report.