In First, Umbrella U.S. Jewish Group Sends Delegation to Saudi Arabia

The visit signals what could be an increasing warmness between some mainstream U.S. Jewish groups and Saudi Arabia as Israel also looks to forger informal ties

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a session of the Shura Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 20, 2019.
BANDAR ALGALOUD/Reuters

A delegation of members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations visited Saudi Arabia this week, a first for the umbrella body for U.S. Jews. It’s believed to be the first official visit to the kingdom by an American Jewish organization since 1993.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has learned that the visit from Monday to Thursday included meetings with senior Saudi officials, as well as with Mohammed al-Issa, the secretary-general of the Muslim World League who recently led a delegation to Auschwitz. Al-Issa is seen as close to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince.

The focus of the talks between the Presidents Conference constituents and Saudi officials was on countering terrorism and those fomenting instability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and Israel share a mutual concern about Iran’s activity in the region and fears that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons program.

Why it matters

The Presidents Conference is an umbrella body for major U.S. Jewish organizations created in the 1950s to present a unified Jewish voice on issues of foreign policy. It has been riven in recent years over differences on criticizing Israel’s settlement policy, and on how closely to work with the Trump administration.

It’s not known which component organizations were represented in Riyadh, but the Conference’s professional leadership — executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein and CEO William Daroff are known to have been present, as well as current lay chairman Arthur Stark.

A number of organizations chose not to attend, but most notably no Reform movement group was on board.

The visit signals what could be an increasing warmness between some mainstream U.S. Jewish groups and Saudi Arabia.

The latter has come under fire in recent years for cracking down on dissidents. Saudi agents in 2018 brutally murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Saudi national who had become critical of the regime, when he was visiting Istanbul.

But Saudi Arabia has also forged closer informal ties with Israel in recent years.

In 1993, the American Jewish Congress sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia, as the Oslo peace process was getting underway.

How it happened

It’s unlikely that the visit took place without the blessings and encouragement of the Trump administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is close to bin Salman. Kushner is seeking traction for the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan he unveiled last month, which has been greeted with skepticism by most of the international community.

Netanyahu also favors the plan, and is seeking to raise his profile as a world player ahead of elections in Israel next month — the country’s third in less than a year.