NEW YORK (Nov. 18)
Prince Bandar Ibn Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, met Monday with over 60 Jewish organizational leaders in two meetings called at his request.
The meetings, the first high-profile, publicized discussions between the Saudis and Jewish leaders, were termed a “breakthrough” by one participant.
The ambassador was in New York primarily for the meetings with the board of the American Jewish Congress and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“For the first time, the barrier was removed and we engaged in dialogue,” said Presidents Conference Chairman Shoshana Cardin following the closed meetings.
Prince Bandar told the Jewish leaders that his government has accepted Security Council Resolution 242, and that Saudi Arabia consequently no longer questions Israel’s right to exist.
“It’s an integral part of the region,” Cardin quoted the Saudi as saying.
Cardin praised the prince for his “helpful role” as Saudi representative at the Madrid peace conference, particularly in bringing the Egyptians around for the direct talks with Israel.
The prince emphasized the importance of “confidence measures” and “quids pro quo” on all sides, said Robert Lifton, president of the American Jewish Congress and a participant at the meetings.
‘A MAN OF GOOD WILL’
The meetings followed four years of private talks between the ambassador and American Jewish Congress officials, said Henry Siegman, the organization’s executive director.
Siegman described the ambassador as “a man of good will, who is able to empathize with Israeli leaders, the problems they face in making compromises.
“That kind of openness and sensitivity is rare in the Arab leaders Jews have met with,” said Siegman.
Bandar was quoted as urging the Jewish leaders not to let go of the peace process.
“There has to be confidence building,” he was quoted as saying.
As to the specifics of such moves, he re-affirmed his government’s support for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s proposal that Israel freeze settlement-building in exchange for the lifting of the Arab boycott.
The ambassador predicted that a freeze would mean the end of the intifada, said Siegman.
“He said Israel didn’t have to renounce existing settlements, or even the right to build settlements in the future. That would be worked out in the negotiations,” said Siegman.
But, according to another participant, the prince did not call for American Jewish pressure on Israel. Public criticism of Israel, the prince was quoted as saying, would result in public posturing and would be counterproductive.
The ambassador made it clear that he did not “free-lance,” and that his views represented those of his government. For their part, the Jewish leaders stressed that the meeting could not be a substitute for direct Saudi-Israeli dialogue.
The prince was reported optimistic about the possibility that Syria would remain in the process, both in the bilateral, face-to-face negotiations with Israel and even in joining the multilateral talks on regional issues.
He repeated earlier Saudi denials of a new request to purchase F-15 figher jets from the United States.