Madrid: Interfaith meet signals thaw in Saudi hostility toward Israel

By Yoav Stern, Haaretz Correspondent
July 20, 2008

In an apparent easing of traditional Saudi hostility toward Israel, King Abdullah has urged followers of all the world's leading religions to embrace reconciliation.

"We must tell the world that differences don't need to lead to disputes," he said at the opening of an interfaith conference in Madrid, addressing Muslim and Christian delegates and even one Israeli envoy who also shook his hand.

Rabbi David Rosen, who is also the Chief Rabbinate's adviser on interfaith dialogue, had been invited to the conference as Chairman of IJCIC, the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations.

The conference organizers knew he was Israeli, following media reports to that effect last week. He met King Abdullah, told him he was a rabbi from Jerusalem and even received his blessing.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told Rosen that his participation in the conference was important and following his recommendation, Rosen was interviewed by the country's official television channel.

Rosen told Haaretz on Thursday that Saudi Arabia was very interested in creating calm in the region but as is their custom, they proceed slowly. "This event is historic because it's the first time that a Saudi king nitiated such a move. The Saudis want to reduce the risks to the region's stability, including the Holy Land. This will be tested in the continuity of the contacts," he said.

Jerusalem sources told Haaretz that Israel and Saudi Arabia have been holding covert meetings in a third state. The talks in these meetings are reportedly not about changing the relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia but only about the goings on in the region.

A few weeks ago, the Ilaf Web site, a prominent Saudi news medium, applied to the Government Press Office for accreditation for its foreign correspondent in Israel.

Unlike most of the institutional Arab press, Ilaf publishes interviews with Israelis. Another major Saudi newspaper, the London-based Asharq alawsat, published an interview with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert earlier this month.

The paper published interviews with senior Israeli figures several times over the last 10 years but in the past refrained from mentioning that these were exclusive.

The newspaper's correspondent in Israel, Nazir Majali, told Haaretz on Thursday that his newspaper reflects a growing tendency of Arab patriots who want to restore Arabism and Islam to a central place in world culture, unlike the direction political Islam has taken.

Part of this trend is a change in the attitude toward Israel.

"Saudi Arabia is fulfilling a central role in this trend, both with the Arab peace initiative and in the interfaith dialogue initiated by King Abdullah. But the trend exists in all the states, from Morocco to Yemen," he said.

Jewish and Interfaith Topics: