WASHINGTON (Jan. 22)
A seven-member delegation from the American Jewish Congress spent four days in Saudi Arabia this week and left convinced that the Saudis are committed to the Middle East peace process.
The timing of the AJCongress mission, coming in the midst of an active Middle East peace process, has sparked both support and criticism from Jewish groups here, on the basis that the Saudis may try to negotiate with American Jewry and not with Israel.
While the Israeli Embassy here had no public comment, one official said anonymously that “one could see this as an encouraging sign for greater openness” by Saudi Arabia toward Israel.
“We hope that what will follow will be direct contact and meetings and visits between Israeli officials and Saudi officials,” the embassy official said.
Such meetings could take place next week in Moscow during the international conference on Middle East regional issues.
But the official pointed out that AJCongress like other Jewish groups, has also visited Jordan in the past, and such trips have not produced and direct improvement in Israeli-Jordanian relations.
Nevertheless, the official said that while dialogue between Arab states and Jewish group cannot substitute for direct negotiations with Israel, such contacts promote greater understanding on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The AJCongress group, led by Robert Lifton the group’s president, and Henry Siegman, it executive director, reported receiving assurance from the Saudis that they do not question Israel right to exist and would like to see a full and formal peace established between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians.
The Jewish visitors met with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and with officials in economic development, education, health care and industry.
But they apparently were rebuffed in an attempt to meet with Saudi King Fahd.
MEETINGS IN EGYPT, JORDAN
The delegation was scheduled to meet Friday with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saturday with Jordan’s King Hussein, both of whom have previously met with Jewish leaders.
They are then planning to go by land from Jordan to Israel, where they expect to hold meetings Sunday with senior Israeli officials.
Siegman said AJCongress expressed its interest in such a visit even prior to the start of the Persian Gulf crisis in August 1990.
The trip follows a meeting last November between the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
While the AJCongress visit may have been the first official one by a Jewish group, it is not the first time that Jewish officials have been to Saudi Arabia. In 1982, Thomas Neumann, then Southwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, visited Saudi Arabia as part of a congressional delegation.
Neumann, now executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said the AJCongress mission could complicate the current Middle East prospects if the Saudis feel they can use U.S. Jewry to “bypass” and “sandbag” Israel.
Positive reaction to the AJCongress mission came from Rabbi Alexander Schindler, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “I think it’s a good development,” he said.
Speaking from a vacation spot in Mexico, the Reform leader said there is a danger that the Saudis will feel that it is “easier to deal with American Jews than it is with the Israelis, but I’m sure the delegation from (AJ)Congress was careful to delineate that, and in that respect, I have no major problem” with the trip.
TRIP CRITICIZED BY ADL LEADER
The AJCongress visit may also have marked the first time that private U.S. citizens have entered the kingdom with passports denoting a prior visit to Israel.
The Saudis imposed no restrictions on any kind of religious objects that the delegation could bring in, Siegman said prior to departing.
Abraham Foxman, ADL’s national director, said the AJCongress talks may be counterproductive in that they took place “at a time that peace talks are in progress and before the Saudis have as yet met with the Israelis.”
Foxman said he similarly objects to having U.S. Jewish groups visit Jordan.
While AJCongress, like other U.S. Jewish groups, has said it will not negotiate with Arab countries on Israel’s behalf, Siegman said before his departure that his group would urge the Saudis to drop “symbolic restrictions” to increasing ties to Israel.
Those restrictions, in AJCongress’ view, include continued Saudi participation in the 40-year-old economic boycott of Israeli goods and services by many Arab League countries.