Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry is at pains to distance itself from a recent visit to Israel by a delegation headed by a former military general, which has generated a chorus of denunciation among Arabs.
Government permission was necessary for Anwar Eshki and other Saudis to make the visit during which they met a senior Israeli foreign ministry official and a number of Knesset members.
An unnamed official at Foreign Ministry in Riyadh, quoted by the al-Hayat newspaper on Wednesday, said that the rare public engagement “does not reflect the views of the Saudi government.”
Eshki, who currently heads the Saudi Institute for Strategic Studies, made the visit last week. He met Israel’s foreign ministry director general Dore Gold and Yoav Mordechai, who coordinates the Israeli regime’s activities in the occupied territories.
The influential Israeli daily Haaretz called the visit “a highly unusual one,” as Eshki couldn’t have traveled to Israel without approval from the Saudi government.
Saudi Arabia and Israel have no official relations and the kingdom prohibits its citizens from traveling to Israel. However, there has been no dearth of news about a rise in engagement between the two sides under the new Saudi rulers.
Riyadh reportedly sees cooperation with Tel Aviv essential to containing a perceived rise in Iran’s influence in the region.
Eshki and Gold raised an uproar first in June 2015 when they held a publicized joint event in Washington, after meeting privately several times over the preceding year.
Israeli lawmaker Esawi Freige, who organized Eshki’s meeting with his fellow members of Knesset last week, shed some light on the trip. “The Saudis want to open up to Israel,” he said.
“This is a strategic step for them. They said they want to continue what former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat started. They want to get closer to Israel. This is clearly evident,” Fregie noted.
He was referring to the former Egyptian president’s negotiations with Israel, which culminated in the Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty in 1979 – the first between an Arab state and Tel Aviv at the time.
Haaretz said that during the meeting with the parliamentarians, Eshki encouraged dialog in Israel on Saudi Arabia’s Arab Peace Initiative.
Saudi Arabia first proposed the “peace” initiative in 2002, offering Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
During an interview with the Qatari news channel Al Jazeera in April, Eshki said Riyadh would open an embassy in Tel Aviv if Israel accepted the Saudi initiative. He also said the Saudis were not interested in “Israel becoming isolated in the region.”
While posing as Israel’s traditional adversaries, Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states have been revealed to have secret ties with the Tel Aviv regime.
Back in May, Israeli newspaper Arutz Sheva said that Saudi Arabia and its Persian Gulf allies, namely Jordan and Egypt, had been sending messages to Israel through various emissaries, including former British PM Tony Blair.
They had asked Tel Aviv to resume Middle East negotiations under new terms, which included changes to the Saudi initiative, the paper said.