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Analysis

The inside track on Saudi Arabia’s delegation to Israel

On Tuesday, 2nd August, BICOM hosted a conference call for journalists with Rabbi Michael Melchior on the recent meeting he had with a delegation of Saudi Arabian leaders, headed by former General Anwar Majed Eshki, the prospects of a reciprocal meeting in Riyadh in the future, and the hope for peace with the involvement of religious leaders. Rabbi Melchior is a former Member of the Knesset for the One Israel party, who served as a Minister for Diaspora Affairs and in various deputy minister positions under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Developing relationships with the Saudi government

As it has already been published there have been more and more relationships with different Saudi authorities. I have already met with several of the Saudi cabinet ministers and leading religious authorities in different frameworks over recent years, including in public encounters and being interviewed by leading Saudi newsreels. Which is quite sensational in itself, although they didn’t receive much notice from the world and I don’t know why, maybe it’s because this meeting was here in this area and not in other places in the world, where previous encounters have been.

Anwar Eshki, he is a former general, he is not an official representative of the government, he stressed this although it is clear that what he does cannot be done without some kind of acceptance of Saudi authorities. He came as the head of an independent strategic think tank with a group of four people.

What created a lot of stir was that the meeting he had with some members of Knesset, myself and one of my Islamic colleagues was publicised, because the photograph from the meeting went out on several Israeli news outlets, and it received a lot of reactions in the Arab and Muslim world.  What I can say is that the reactions where interesting because the condemnations came mostly from the Shia world, Nasrallah came out with a very strong bombastic condemnation of this and likewise Khamenei yesterday. And they were followed up, interestingly enough, by the Israeli Hadash party lead by Aymen Odeh. It was actually too bad that they said that this [building of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel] is an attack on the Syrian-Hezbollah-Iranian coalition, which was not a very intelligent attack [from their part].

But the Sunni Arab world has neither condemned nor supported it. Even the Hamas condemnation was a very soft condemnation, they said it was not the right time for such a meeting but they didn’t really condemn it. The only point made by the opponents to the meeting (Hassan Nasrallah and company) was that this was a way to make direct agreements between Saudi Arabia and Israel and circumvent the Palestinian issue, which is an absolute absurdity as the meeting took place in the offices of one of the leading people in the Palestinian authority, and the whole purpose of the meeting was to see how we could include the Arab Peace Initiative [in peace negotiations] and create peace between Israel and Palestine as part of the package.

This was the purpose of Anwar Eshki’s visit, and the main issue on the subject of our meeting, which then included a very interesting aspect. Because Anwar Eshki besides being a general is also an Imam, and he was very interested in the religious peace track in which we’re involved and which we have already discussed with several Saudi leaders. As we have with with a lot of the Islamists and other leading people in the Arab world, as well as in the Jewish world who are joining the coalition for religious peace more and more, And it turned out that he has written a book on one of the basic concepts, of which is  basic for conflict or maybe for solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has to do with Mohammed’s agreement in Hudaybiyyah with the tribes and whether you have to keep an agreement or not keep an agreement. And it turned out that my Islamic colleague Raid Badir who was part of this meeting, he not only has written on this extensively but has written very originally and he was so surprised that this Islamist is part of the religious peace movement; he said all the religious leaders in Saudi Arabia are reading your books on this subject and are led by your thinking and are challenged by your thinking on this subject. Since this meeting we are following up with Eshki, who has been encouraged by the reactions after the meeting and seeing how we can support the peace process through a track two. [There is] also religious intervention from all kinds of people who up until now have been against the peace process and [we are seeing] how we can involve them in support for peace which we’ll hopefully see much sooner rather than later. This has been the impression from the meeting we had and the follow up with Eshki and his people since we met here in the area.

Question: In relation to that and to the efforts that the Saudis have made on a religious front what we hear coming from Saudi Arabia is that there’s still a lot of Mullahs pushing the anti-Israel, anti-Zionist line and the Saudis are still funding Madrasas across bits of Africa and around the world in which Israel doesn’t get a very good hearing, to put it mildly. So I wondered if you talked to any of your Saudi interlocutors about that subject?

MM: Well, we’re trying to go ahead with the positive side of this. The positive side of this is that there is today a big part of the Sunni world – and truth is also part of the Shia world, it’s not all the Shia world which is Hezbollah and [Khamenei] – and there are also serious people in Iraq who want to be part of the world and want Iraq to be part of the world. There are very many strong forces in Saudi Arabia and I think the government of Saudi Arabia, who would like to see Saudi Arabia as a serious force to support the peace, they’re fully behind the Arab peace plan which of course as we all know was initiated by Saudi Arabia, and investing a lot in that the Israelis should adopt the Arab peace plan at least as a basis for negotiations.  [There are positive] sides to this, there might also be negative [sides] to people for whom this is very new thinking. But those people we need to win over, and I think that the religious peace is a way of using another language other than the secular language of the Arab peace plan, that the religious peace is a way, is a method of including those Mullahs who are not yet part of this thinking, and I hope that we can maybe through meeting them and convincing them, bring them aboard. So that they will in the future be a part of this and support the peace efforts of the Saudis, which of course demand that we go ahead with the peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Question: How important do you think religious peace is as a part of the diplomatic peace process?

MM: I think it’s crucial. I think it’s necessary. I think that everybody has seen in that the last 23 years since Oslo, peace has failed and it has failed because the [religious] identities haven’t been involved, they’ve been excluded. Partly because they wanted to be excluded and partly because there were others who wanted to exclude them. I think to go down the same blind alley once more with another diplomatic effort without including the identities – which are by far and large traditional and religious – and again putting up in front of people the choice that you can choose between peace and your identity, is not going to work. A we’ve tried this already six or seven times and it’s just not going to work and therefore we need now to have a process which includes all parties and includes the religious identities and therefore I don’t only think it’s only an advantage, I think it is crucial, it’s necessary.

Question: Is there a principle, theological reason that Israel can engage with Sunni religious leaders more than Shiite leaders? And do you see that as possible again in the future?

MM: I don’t think there’s a reason why we can engage with Sunni more than Shiite, but our main conflict… the Palestinians are all Sunnis and the countries around are all Sunnis. It’s true that we have a problem with Hezbollah, but Hezbollah are puppets of the Iranians, and if the Iranians want to engage with us in peace then (Unclear 23:02) as we say, they’re very welcome to do so, but our main problem is with the Sunni Muslim world. And the main theory is that Islam will never be able to accept a State of Israel here in what’s called Dar al Islam, and the Islamic world and the Islamic religious authorities will never be able to live with such a thing. There might be one or other political leader who will make a contract, but Islam will never be able to do that. And we now see that, that is not so. That there are very serious Islamic Sunni, including the very radical Islamic leaders who are willing today to do that, and I think that we are going to see it much more in the coming months.

This is part of what we are dealing with, mostly under the radar. The same way for Jewish leaders. It’s not easy also for Jewish leaders to give up the concept of Eretz Yisrael HaShelema, or the total of Israel belonging to us, and it is part of the dream we have. The total Israel isn’t that big, isn’t that large in any case, and we have a dream that the historic Judea and Samaria which historically has been part of Eretz Yisrael always and this is ours, and to have the recognition that there is another people living here, and that this has consequences and is part a divine plan, is not an easy thing to be able to live with. We’re allowed to keep our dreams and our hopes and our aspirations for what will be in the future and the times of the Khaliffa or the times of the Messianic times, but we can make a salaam, a peace, with each other and that is the will of God and that is what we take upon ourselves as religious leaders, and that we have the religious obligation to relate to each other and to do what is expected of each other, instead of crushing each other. It’s much easier to do that when you know that there is a partner to do it with. When you don’t have to relate to it, when there is no partner, then it is easy to say “well there is nobody to do it with”, there is no partner and we Israelis are convinced that we have no partners for peace and the Palestinians are convinced that they have no partners for peace and everything is much easier, the world is much easier to deal with.

But when you suddenly sit with very serious people who are just as serious in their identity and their religion as we are in ours, and you see that we can talk about different solutions, then this is a tremendous challenge, which suddenly gives hope that we can build a future together. This is really the same issue all over the world just as it is here in Jerusalem and in the whole Holy Land it’s the same issue everywhere in the world. This is a tremendous challenge and a visit like the visit of Anwar Eshki which now can already go public and many other things happening these days, which are so exciting, under the radar, will go public very soon and it will give people suddenly hope that we can be in a different place. It can restore the belief that peace is really an option, is really possible for the two peoples hurting and bleeding here.

Question: Just picking up on your last point about the fact that there seems to be something really happening between Israel and a group of Sunni Arab states. The initiative being discussed that is the most likely to bring any form of direct negotiations at the moment is coming from Egypt, so I wondered if you could comment about what the Saudis, or what you know about the Saudis think of the Egyptian proposal, are they fully behind it in practice?

MM: That is more on the diplomatic track, and I am talking more about track two. I really don’t want to relate to that. I think that every diplomatic effort is good in itself, if the Saudis are fully supportive of the Egyptian initiative now that you will have to ask the Saudis about. I’m still not yet their spokesman!

Question: If I can just indulge in asking one more question Rabbi, when do you think it could be that we’ll see a reciprocal visit? Either by yourself or Israelis, to visit Riyadh.

MM: I think that this could be much sooner than you dream about. I’ve had already invitations to go, but that would not be with an Israeli passport and I’ve always said when I go to also to Arab countries I only go…first of all I only have an Israeli passport so it’s very easy, but we have to make peace with Israel and when I come I will come as an Israeli, and I think that we’re much closer to that day. It’s in the cards and it will, as we say Inshallah, “with god’s help” it will happen very soon.