In what appears to be a continuing effort to foster relationships with American Jews by a country with no official ties to Israel, Saudi Arabia recently hosted a delegation of the Anti-Defamation League in Riyadh.
“They believe the Jewish community is a significant element in American policy and in world affairs and that it pays to cultivate” its leaders, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL.
The 10-member delegation, also led by ADL National Chairman David Strassler, also traveled to Gaza – to meet with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat – Cairo and Jerusalem.
Foxman called on Arafat to bring to justice Abu Abbas, who masterminded the killing of Leon Klinghoffer 10 years ago on the cruise ship Achille Lauro.
Abbas has been a member of the PLO executive committee, but apparently is not part of Arafat’s inner circle.
Foxman, whose organization established the Klinghoffer Foundation 10 years ago to fight terrorism, made the call on behalf of Klinghoffer’s daughters.
Arafat responded by telling the ADL delegates that the killing was a Libyan operation committed “under the PLO flag” to embarrass his organization and that he had condemned it at the time.
Arafat made no pledge to prosecute Abbas, but invited Klinghoffer’s daughters to pay him a visit, which they declined, according to a spokesman for the ADL delegation.
The ADL’s arrival in the Saudi capital Nov. 13 marked the organization’s first visit, but if followed similar trips in recent years by representatives of such groups as the American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress.
It also followed an unprecedented appearance last month in New York by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations during which he urged American Jews to demonstrate more support for the Israeli government’s peacemaking efforts.
He also told the conference that his country would be ready to normalize ties with Israel a soon as there is a comprehensive peace in the region.
Faisal was particularly eager at the meeting with both the conference and the ADL in Riyadh in paint Saudi Arabia as key to prodding the Arab parties to the peace table and to ensuring stability and security in the Middle East.
For Foxman, Faisal’s message, plus the open atmosphere of the ADL visit – during which “no subject was taboo” and the Saudis displayed a surprising knowledge of Israel – signified that “the world has changed.”
Foxman said all the parties – both Arab and Israeli leaders – evinced a common concern about terrorism and religious extremism – “in the guise of Islam or the perversion of Torah.”
“No one is immune,” he said, nothing that a bomb exploded in a U.S.-run military center in Riyadh shortly after his arrival, killing six and wounding scores of others.
Egypt is slated to take a seat on the U.N. Security Council in January and pledged that it would wage an international fight against terrorism, ADL sources said.
The delegation also said the Israelis, Egyptians and Saudis all hinted at impending breakthroughs in talks between Syria and Israel. Indeed, early this week the two countries’ foreign ministers expressed their willingness to make peace in tones described as unprecedented in a public exchange at a conference in Barcelona, Spain.
In Egypt, the group pressed President Hosni Mubarak on anti-Semitism in his nation’s media and on the habitual exclusion of Israel from cultural festivities.
Mubarak said he could not censor the media.
And even though he “repudiated anti-Semitism,” he gave no “acceptable response” to the anti-Israeli trends among the intelligentsia, according to those present.
Meanwhile, in Riyadh, the group was assured that the primary Arab boycott against direct trade with Israel is being eroded and would end formally “at the appropriate time” in the peace process.
The secondary and tertiary boycotts, which blacklisted companies with economic ties to Israel and banned trade with companies doing business with blacklisted companies, have already ended.
In Gaza, the group pressed Arafat to revoke the clauses in the Palestine Covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.
Arafat said he “could not guarantee” the changes under a democracy, but pledged to “urge” the Palestine National Council to vote for the changes, said the ADL delegation spokesman.
Foxman said he decided to visit Arafat in Gaza after Arafat paid a condolence call to the widow of slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and “was sensitive enough not to go to the funeral. The least I could do was have a dialogue.”
Foxman pointedly did not attend the meeting with Arafat last month in New York organized by the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council. He called it “a show, a production, and I didn’t want to be part of the circus.”
“He is what he is,” Foxman said of Arafat. “To move the process along and save lives, we don’t have the luxury of saying we don’t like him.”