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Minister: 'Stupid' segment aired 'just for ratings'

Israeli gov’t said ‘satisfied’ with reporter, TV network’s apologies over Mecca trip

Source declines to comment on whether Jerusalem was involved in decision by Channel 13 to issue statement that defended segment while apologizing if it offended anyone

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Channel 13 reporter Gil Tamary reports from Mecca on July 17, 2022. The face of the man who assisted him is blurred in the background  (Screen capture/Channel 13)
Channel 13 reporter Gil Tamary reports from Mecca on July 17, 2022. The face of the man who assisted him is blurred in the background (Screen capture/Channel 13)

Israeli government officials are satisfied with the statements issued by a national news network and its reporter apologizing for broadcasting an illegal visit to the holy Muslim city of Mecca, a source in Jerusalem familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.

The Sunday visit to Mecca by Channel 13’s Gil Tamary violated Saudi law, which bars non-Muslims from the city. It sparked immediate uproar, with the topic still trending on social media for Middle East users as of Wednesday evening.

On Tuesday — a day after the report aired — both Channel 13 and Tamary issued statements saying they apologized if the segment had offended Muslims but stood by the decision to air it, deeming it a significant journalistic accomplishment. The 10-minute report showed Tamary being driven into the city by a local who agreed to sneak him into Mecca. He filmed himself climbing Mount Arafat before quickly heading back upon arousing the suspicion of several guards at the holy site.

The Israeli government has refrained from commenting on the broadcast, but the source familiar with the matter indicated that it had caused a headache for Jerusalem, which has been seeking to warm and ultimately normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. It’s a goal that Israeli and US officials have acknowledged will not be realized in the near future and Riyadh’s foreign minister also dumped cold water on the idea last weekend. But some analysts, citing the widespread Muslim outrage, argued that Tamary’s visit may well have further complicated normalization efforts,

The source who spoke with The Times of Israel declined to comment on whether the government had been involved in the decisions by Channel 13 and Tamary to issue the apology statements.

Earlier Wednesday, Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej decried the TV report as “stupid.”

“I think it was stupidity,… totally out of place [and] just [done] for ratings,” Frej, who is the second Muslim minister in Israeli history, told the Kan public broadcaster. Frej also argued that the segment would harm the prospects of Saudi-Israel normalization.

“This is a holy place for Muslims,” said Frej. “What was the point? You want a report from there, send a Muslim journalist!… The damage from this will be significant.”

Tamary was one of just three members of the Israeli press allowed into Saudi Arabia to cover the GCC+3 summit this past weekend.

Saudi Arabia rejected recognition of the Jewish state in 1948 and maintains that policy in part due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That, however, started to change in recent years, with behind-the-scenes attempts to promote diplomatic and security cooperation in the face of the Iranian threat.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia announced it was opening its airspace to all civilian overflights, in a move widely regarded as part of US-brokered efforts to advance normalization steps between Jerusalem and Riyadh. The announcement happened while US President Joe Biden was visiting Israel, hours before he traveled to Jeddah and met Saudi leaders.

However, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan said Saturday that Riyadh’s decision to open its airspace had “nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel” and was “not in any way a precursor to any further steps” toward normalization.

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