Jewish Leaders, Upset at Impasse, Plan to Rebuff Gesture from Saudis

For the first time, Saudi Arabia has invited American Jewish leaders to attend a national holiday reception at the kingdom’s embassy in Washington.

But many of those invited do not plan to attend.

Invitations to attend a reception this Wednesday in honor of Saudi Arabia’s National Day were extended to officials of a number of Jewish organizations, apparently those who met with the Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar Ibn Sultan, last November.

That meeting, with more than 60 representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the American Jewish Congress, followed four years of private talks between the ambassador and AJCongress officials.

But Saudi Arabia’s failure to go beyond goodwill gestures toward American Jews and announce substantive policy changes toward Israel has disappointed Jewish leaders.

As a result, many of those invited have decided not to attend the reception in Washington, while others are undecided.

Phil Baum, associate executive director of the AJCongress, hailed the invitation as “a good sign, a sign that they intend to open up and be available to the Jewish community. It would be wrong to just be indifferent to it.”

But Baum said he is disturbed by the Saudi failure to drop the Arab secondary boycott against firms that do business with Israel, as well as harsh comments concerning Israel that were made last week by the Saudi ambassador to the United Nations.

“They have not progressed as rapidly as they should,” said Baum. “Whether that should be an adequate reason not to go, we don’t know. In all likelihood, it will be worthwhile to go, to intimate to them that more progress is desirable.”

Lawrence Rubin, executive vice chair of the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said, “We’re not going to be there.”

He said there had been indications last month that Saudi Arabia would make a breakthrough statement on the boycott during a visit there by James Baker, then the U.S. secretary of state.

When no statement materialized, “we were disappointed,” said Rubin.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents, said he did not plan to be at the reception.

Asked about the outcome of last year’s meeting, he said “there were many promises that remain unfulfilled. And we remain upset that they have not acted on the boycott of Israel and remain in a state of war with Israel.”

At the November 1991 meeting, Prince Bandar denied that his country had asked to buy more sophisticated F-15 fighter jets from the United States. Earlier this month, the White House announced it would sell the Saudis up to 72 of the aircraft, despite objections from Israel.

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