The retired Saudi general who met senior Israeli officials and Knesset members in Jerusalem two weeks ago has rejected any attempt to link his visit to a normalizing of relations between the two countries.
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Gen. Anwar Eshki was interviewed Tuesday on the Al-Shams radio station, which broadcasts from Nazareth. He said he came to Israel, along with other researchers from the Middle East institute he heads, after being invited by the Palestinian Authority – in particular, senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub.
Eshki met with Israel’s Foreign Ministry Director General Dore Gold and Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the coordinator of government activities in the territories, on his visit. He also met a group of Knesset members, to encourage dialogue in Israel on the Arab Peace Initiative (aka the Saudi Initiative). His delegation also included a number of academics and businesspeople.
The meetings with Gold and Mordechai didn’t take place in a government office, but rather at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Eshki said he held his meetings in Ramallah and East Jerusalem, and didn’t visit a single official Israeli institution.
“My visit was not coordinated with the Saudi royal house and I did not receive a green light from Saudi Arabia,” he told Al-Shams. “I came on my own behalf and that of the research institute. However, there were those who tried to exploit the visit and its timing in order to attack Saudi Arabia. In Israel, too, they exploited the visit to report on closer [relations] and normalization,” he added.
Eshki said he had met Gold a few years ago in Washington. He told Al-Shams that Israel “can speak about changes in the Arab Peace Initiative, but the Saudi and Arab position is clear: There will be no change in the Saudi position or the Saudi Initiative, and Israel must accept it in full, in return for normalization with Arab nations.”
He also strongly rejected reports in the Arab media that he had come to Israel with Saudi businessmen who are interested in investing in Israel, and that he himself is also interested in such investments. “We are in favor of investment in the area of the Palestinian Authority, not in Israel, and we made this clear [in both Israel and the PA],” he said.
A few days after last month’s visit, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry distanced itself from Eshki’s visit.
The delegation also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior Palestinian government figures in Ramallah.
The visit received widespread coverage in the Arab world, though less so in the media associated with the Saudi royal house. In general, it generated harsh criticism, much of it directed toward Saudi Arabia.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah addressed the delegation’s visit in a speech last week. He attacked Saudi Arabia and alleged that the country was normalizing relations with Israel.
“Saudi Arabia has taken advantage of the ailing Arab situation, only to build relations with Israel,” Nasrallah said. “The price will be at the account of the Palestinians.” He added this was a sign that relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia had moved from a secret stage to a public one.
Nasrallah’s statements chimed with what many in the Arab world have been saying, as well as the Palestinians: That a number of Gulf states – led by Saudi Arabia – have been conducting diplomatic and business contacts and coordination with Israel, and that some of these contacts have occasionally been exposed in the media.
Saudi Arabia and Israel have no official relations and the kingdom prohibits its citizens from traveling to Israel. Also, it does not grant visas to Israelis. However, Saudi government permission was probably necessary for Eshki and his delegation to make last month’s visit.
Eshki and Gold shared a stage (and handshake) during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations, a Washington-based think tank, in June 2015. They had met several times privately within academic frameworks over the preceding year.
Gold attended the Washington event a few days before assuming the role of director general at the Foreign Ministry. Eshki, meanwhile, served in senior positions in the Saudi military and Foreign Ministry.