Caryle Murphey
The National
February 7, 2010 - 1:00am

A senior Saudi Arabian prince said yesterday that his public handshake with Israel’s deputy foreign minister after a testy exchange of words in Germany on Saturday does not signal a change in Saudi government policy.

“This event should not be taken out of context or misunderstood,” Prince Turki al Faisal said in a statement. “My strong objections and condemnations of Israel’s policies and actions against the Palestinians remain unchanged.”

The “event” was Prince Turki’s handshake with Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, before scores of onlookers at an international conference on security in Munich.

According to press reports, the palm clasp came after the pair already had drawn the audience’s undivided attention with an unusually blunt colloquy that began with Mr Ayalon accusing “a representative of a country with a lot of oil” of refusing “to sit with us” on a conference panel.

Prince Turki, chairman of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, does not currently hold a government position. He served for many years as head of Saudi intelligence, and then as Saudi ambassador to London and Washington.

It is extremely rare for Israeli and Saudi officials to meet publicly and recurring press reports of secret contacts between the two states are always vehemently denied by Riyadh.

One of the last times that officials of the two countries formally met was almost two decades ago, during the short-lived US effort to jump-start multilateral talks between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Those talks arose out of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference.

Israel, which has formal diplomatic relations with only two of its Arab neighbours – Egypt and Jordan – is eager for such gestures with Arab officials as a sign that regional hostility to it is easing.

But for most Arab officials, shaking hands with an Israeli can become earth-shaking within their political constituencies, opening them up to accusations that they are betraying the Palestinian cause.

In Prince Turki’s version of events, described in his statement yesterday, Mr Ayalon also said that despite Saudi Arabia’s wealth, it “has not given a penny to the Palestinian Authority”.

During the question-and-answer part of the session, Prince Turki rose and stated that Saudi Arabia had given US$500 million (Dh1.8 billion) to the Palestinian Authority in the past five years, and explained that he had not refused to be on the panel with Mr Ayalon because of his position, but because of “his boorish conduct with the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol”, Prince Turki’s statement added.

He was referring to Mr Ayalon’s public humiliation of Mr Celikkol last month in protest against a Turkish television portrayal of Israelis. Israel apologised to Turkey for the incident.

Mr Ayalon replied that “if indeed it was not [Prince Turki] who objected to my being here with him, I would welcome him to shake my outstretched hand,” Reuters reported. It added that Prince Turki approached the podium, Mr Ayalon stepped down, and the two men shook hands to applause from conference participants.

In his statement, Prince Turki recounted that Mr Ayalon “asked me to come up to the podium to shake hands to show that there were no hard feelings. I pointed to him that he should step down from the podium and come to me and when we stood face to face he said that he apologised for what he had said and I replied that I accept his apology not only to me but also to the Turkish ambassador”.

Prince Turki’s statement made no mention of a handshake.

“It is clear that Israel’s Arab neighbours want peace,” his statement concluded.

“But they cannot be expected to tolerate what amounts to theft, and certainly should not be pressured into rewarding Israel for the return of land that does not belong to it in the first place.

“Until Israel heeds US President Barack Obama’s call for the removal of all settlements,” he added, “the Israelis must be under no illusion that Saudi Arabia will offer what they most desire – regional recognition.”


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