update deskMiddle East

Israeli officials make first public appearance in Riyadh

The delegation is in the kingdom for a UNESCO meeting.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Mohammed Younos/Shutterstock.
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Mohammed Younos/Shutterstock.

An Israeli delegation attended a meeting of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in Riyadh on Monday, marking the first public appearance by Israeli officials in Saudi Arabia.

“We are happy to be here; it’s a good first step. We thank UNESCO and the Saudi authorities,” one of the Israeli representatives, who did not want to be named due to the sensitivities of the visit, told AFP.

During Monday’s meeting, the Israeli delegation was able to place the nameplate of the Jewish state on its desk. The official said the trip to Riyadh has been “very good” thus far, adding that the Saudis “treat us very well.”

An anonymous U.N. diplomat cited by AFP said the agency’s director-general, Audrey Azoulay, had been instrumental in securing Israel’s participation in Riyadh.

“It’s the result of several years of work by Audrey Azoulay to create, in the heart of UNESCO, the conditions for a dialogue between all the states of the region,” stated the official.

Azoulay told Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen during a recent meeting in Paris that the Saudis had signed a “host country agreement” with the U.N. body, allowing officials from all member states to attend the 45th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Riyadh from Sept. 10 to Sept. 25.

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem declined to comment on the matter when contacted by JNS. Israel withdrew from UNESCO in 2019, citing the body’s bias.

In a 2016 resolution, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee registered the Tomb of the Patriarchs, located in Hebron, in the name of the “State of Palestine” on its “List of World Heritage in Danger.”

UNESCO passed 47 resolutions between 2009 and 2014, 46 directed against Israel and one that criticized Syria.

More recently, Likud lawmaker Dan Illouz sent a letter to Azoulay asking her to prevent ancient Jericho from being listed as a city in the “State of Palestine.”

However, Israeli sites remain listed on the World Heritage List, and Jerusalem sends representatives as observers to the World Heritage Committee.

In June, UNESCO announced that the United States was rejoining the body the following month and paying more than $600 million in outstanding dues. The Trump administration had withdrawn from UNESCO at the same time as Jerusalem.

Sunday’s development comes amid a U.S.-led diplomatic push to persuade Riyadh to join the Abraham Accords, the Trump administration-brokered deals that normalized the Jewish state’s relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

In March, the Saudis blocked a group of Israeli Muslims from attending a United Nations event held in the kingdom. The U.N. World Tourism Organization had invited villagers from the Circassian town of Kfar Kama in the Lower Galilee to the event honoring their village, but Saudi authorities denied them visas.

In July, though, a team of Israelis competed in Saudi Arabia in the annual FIFAe [esports] World Cup, which sees participants play the latest version of the popular soccer video game. This month, a delegation of Israeli athletes is competing in the 2023 IWF World Weightlifting Championships in Riyadh.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is actively courting Saudi Arabia to join the accords, which he said would constitute a “quantum leap” toward regional peace.

But Riyadh is demanding security guarantees from the United States before it enters into any normalization deal, along with American assistance in building its civilian nuclear program.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu said last month, “I think that we are about to witness a pivot of history.”

In fact, he added: “I’d bet on it.”

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