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Flags of Israel and Saudi Arabia

{Originally posted to the Council on Foreign Relations website}

There have been many signs that Saudi official attitudes toward Israel are changing, and today brought one of the strongest. As a headline in the Jerusalem Post put it, “In Possible Nod to Israel, Two Top Saudi Officials Visit Paris Synagogue.” The article continues:

In a historic first and possible nod to Israel, two top officials from Saudi Arabia – both former government ministers – visited a synagogue in Paris this week, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

The officials were Secretary General of the Muslim World League Dr. Muhammad Abdul-Kareem al-Issa, a former Saudi justice minister, and Khalid bin Mohammed Al Angari, a former Saudi education minister who currently serves as Riyadh’s ambassador to France.


Needless to say, neither man would conceivably have made this visit without official approval from Riyadh.

This is a small step, of course; this is not Sadat visiting Jerusalem to speak to the Knesset, an event that happened almost exactly forty years ago (November 19, 1977). But it is not exactly nothing, either. It fits within a recent pattern that should be recognized and encouraged. As I’ve written before, it seems to me the Trump administration believes this will go further than I think it will. I think the Saudis are getting most of what they want from Israel in secret military and intelligence channels. I doubt they will take big risks by doing things in public that might bring significant attacks on them.

But they will do some things, and this is a potentially important one. The late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia started a center on interfaith dialogue, announcing it at a United Nations session on religious tolerance in November 2008 that he and President Bush attended. This gives the current Saudi king and crown prince something to build on (and hide behind). Given the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe and globally in recent years, having the Saudis publicly demonstrate respect for Judaism is a helpful and useful step–for Israel and for Jews. Let’s hope it is followed by more. If the Saudi ambassador to France can visit a synagogue, can the Saudi ambassador to Washington–who happens to be the King’s son? Can the head of the World Muslim League issue a strong and clear denunciation of anti-Semitism and all religious hatred? Can the Saudis cleanse their textbooks of anti-Semitic material? Such steps seemed ridiculous not so long ago, but these are questions that may seriously be asked today–with at least some hope that in future years the answer might be yes.


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Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). He served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor under Pres. George W. Bush.