Israeli PM-Saudi Royal Meeting: "Fabricated" or Not?

Though denied by both Prime Minister Olmert and the Saudi government, reports persist that a meeting between the prime minister and a member of the Saudi royal family took place this month.

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Nissan Ratzlav-Katz, | updated: 20:38

According to a story initially reported by the Israeli newspaper Yediot Acharonot this week, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and a senior Saudi Arabian official, possibly the desert kingdom's regent, King Abdullah, met earlier this month at an undisclosed location. The meeting was convened, Yediot reported, to discuss of the Iranian threat to the region and other current issues, marking the first time an Israeli leader has met with a Saudi official.

On Monday, Prime Minister Olmert denied the reports, which were picked up by Arab print and broadcast media, saying that he was misquoted by the Yediot Acharonot reporter who had interviewed him. The prime minister said he related to the newspaper "what I think - that the Saudi position during the war in Lebanon was evidence of its taking responsibility." Saudi Arabia originally condemned Hizbullah for bringing about the war, but later toned down its comments.

Prime Minister Olmert charged the media with creating "sensations" by reporting an alleged Saudi-Israeli meeting. "I am not angry," he said. "I am able to see the pleasure that people have by creating headlines" that attract readers. Aides to the prime minister declined to answer when asked if Olmert has met with any senior Saudi officials.

For its part, the official Saudi Arabian foreign ministry response to the reports of the secret meeting is that the story was "completely fabricated."

"The news story circulated by Israeli and Qatari media recently over contacts between Saudi and Israeli officials is utterly false," said the SPA state-owned news agency, quoting an unnamed foreign ministry official. The official added that Saudi Arabia "undertakes its national duties in transparency."

Osama Nugali, Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, told the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the kingdom did not hold any talks with Israel, emphasizing that there are no "secret" contacts and that Saudi Arabia's diplomatic efforts and initiatives are public knowledge.

On the other hand, speaking with the British Guardian newspaper on Tuesday, Vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres praised the Saudi diplomatic initiative, saying that he sees Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran as the chief obstacles to implementing it. The Saudi diplomatic initiative was first floated in 2002, and would include Arab recognition of Israel, Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967, and a Palestinian State with East Jerusalem as its capital.

The Guardian quoted Peres as saying: "The Arab world says: 'Let's make an overall agreement'.... Why not? The only thing is, can they control Hamas? Can they control Hizbullah? Can they control Iran? Because to make peace and to have war is not a great attraction. ...We know actually the Saudi plan and again the problem arises, what happens to the terrorist groups? Because they are the basic obstacle right now."

Knesset Member Matan Vilnai (Labor) reacted to reports of the Saudi-Israeli meeting on Israel Radio:
I think that any meeting of leaders - undoubtedly a meeting between the Israeli leader and the Saudi Arabian leader - is the right direction. One must understand that the peace process began in our region in 1977 with the arrival of Sadat to Jerusalem. This was already a generation ago.

We are involved in a different process now. It is much more complex to reach arrangements and peace with the world around us - the Arab countries. Not everything is by force but rather by wisdom and political processes.

This meeting, under the assumption that it did take place, seems very central and very important to me. It could open the opportunity for amazing things.
Former UN Ambassador Dore Gold, on the other hand, warned against dealings between Israel and the Saudi Arabia, telling Channel 1 English News correspondent Dan Diker, "It is necessary to draw a distinction between high-level Israeli contacts between Saudi Arabia and senior Israeli officials and accepting the Saudi peace initiative of a few years back."

Gold warned that the Saudi plan of a number of years ago calls for a total Israeli retreat from all areas conquered in the June 1967 Six Day War, including the Old City of Jerusalem, the Golan Heights and the Jordan Valley. Gold explained that if Israel were to relinquish sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, Iran would have a free passage for weapons into Palestinian Authority areas.

"Israel must be careful to not lend political credit to Saudi Arabia since it has yet to cut itself off from supporting terrorism outside of Saudi borders. There is substantial evidence of Saudi involvement in Al-Qaeda insurgency in Iraq and other areas, as well as financing Hamas and moving financial incentives to families of suicide bombers, a further incentive to potential bombers," added Gold.