The head of a rare Saudi delegation to Israel and the occupied West Bank met a senior Israeli government official during his trip, Israel’s foreign ministry told AFP on Sunday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said the meeting between retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki and the ministry’s director-general Dore Gold took place but did not give further details.
Eshki’s meetings with Gold and Mordechai reportedly took place at the King David Hotel in the heart of Jerusalem, and not at official Israeli government facilities.
The Jerusalem Post newspaper said Eshki led a delegation of “businessmen and academics” on a mission to promote a stalled Saudi-led 2002 Arab peace initiative.
The recent visit by Eshki is extremely rare and highly unusual,Haaretz explained, saying that the former general couldn’t have traveled to Israel without explicit approval from the Saudi government.
Three Knesset members, Issawi Frej and Michael Rozin (Meretz) and Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) who attended the meeting revealed that the Saudis expressed eagerness to progress Israeli discourse on the peace initiative.
Israeli army radio on Sunday aired an Arabic telephone interview with Eshki, chairman of the Jeddah-based Middle East Centre for Strategic and Legal Studies, in which he denied that his country had security links with the Jewish state.
“To my knowledge there is no cooperation in the struggle against terrorism,” he said.
He said that Israel would only be able to make peace with the Arab world when it had resolved the conflict with the Palestinians, in accordance with the 2002 Arab proposal.
It calls for Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories and resolve the issue of refugees with the Palestinians, leading to the creation of a Palestinian state, in exchange for normalised relations with Arab countries.
“Peace will not come from Arab countries, but the Palestinians and the implementation of the Arab peace plan,” Eshki said.
The radio quoted him as saying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is not the cause of terrorism, but it provides a breeding ground for conflict in the region”.
The Israeli side was optimistic about the visit too.
“The Saudis want to open up to Israel,” Frej said. “It’s a strategic move for them. They want to continue what former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat started (with the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty). They want to get closer with Israel, and we could feel it clearly.”
This is not the first time Eshki and Gold have met. In August 2015, the two shook hands and made back-to-back addresses to the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think tank. Both leaders advocated for a move towards Israeli-Saudi peace and acknowledged Iran as the main threat to stability and security in the region.
During their short trip last week, the delegation also took the time to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as several other Palestinian officials, and toured the city of Ramallah, Haaretz reported.
Eshki is no stranger to warm overtures toward Israel. In April, the former general expressed willingness to establish a Saudi embassy in Tel Aviv, contingent upon Israel’s cooperation in adopting the Arab Peace Initiative.
Egypt and Jordan are the only two Arab nations to have made peace with Israel.