Israeli government delegation holds Jewish prayer service in Saudi Arabia

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi, in Riyadh for UN postal conference, joins minyan for Sukkot holiday complete with Torah scroll and four species

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

A member of Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi's delegation holds up a Torah scroll during a morning prayer service in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 3, 2023. (Spokesman's Office, Communications Ministry)
A member of Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi's delegation holds up a Torah scroll during a morning prayer service in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 3, 2023. (Spokesman's Office, Communications Ministry)

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi participated in a morning prayer service in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday morning, complete with a Torah scroll dedicated to the ruler of the kingdom as it strides toward normalization with the Jewish state.

The service, which included a quorum, or minyan, of at least 10 men, took place in Karhi’s hotel, and included three Jews who were in Riyadh but are not part of Karhi’s delegation.

Pictures released by Karhi’s office showed participants wearing traditional prayer shawls and holding an etrog alongside palm, myrtle and willow branches, part of a special rite for the Sukkot holiday.

They also read from a small Torah scroll, provided by a “local Jew,” according to Karhi’s spokesman.

The scroll was wrapped in a felt cover, with stitching in English, Hebrew and Arabic reading “The Jewish Congregation, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

It also included a dedication in Hebrew to “King Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and all their ministers and advisers.”

Karhi, an Orthodox Jew, landed in the Sunni kingdom on Monday evening, leading an Israeli delegation to the Universal Postal Union’s 2023 Extraordinary Congress.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi (R) prays during a morning service in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 3, 2023. (Spokesman’s Office, Communications Ministry)

The minister, who was accompanied by Knesset Economy Committee chairman David Bitan, made the trip less than a week after his Likud colleague Haim Katz became the first Israeli minister to visit.

The visits come as Israel and Saudi Arabia edge closer to an agreement to normalize relations in a US-brokered deal that, if finalized, would mark a historic breakthrough for Israel’s standing in the Middle East.

“Just as the windows in the house of Daniel were opened facing Jerusalem, so too in Riyadh we were able to pray with windows open facing Jerusalem,” said Karhi in a statement, referring to the biblical character exiled to Babylon.

Karhi and Bitan’s delegation has a total of 14 members, including representatives of the Communications Ministry, the postal service and the Foreign Ministry, according to Karhi’s office.

A Torah scroll dedicated to the Saudi king and crown prince in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, October 3, 2023. (Spokesman’s Office, Communications Ministry)

Karhi will deliver a speech at the conference that will focus on “progress and a bridge to peace,” his spokesman told The Times of Israel.

He is also slated to meet with US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Michael Ratney, along with other global figures including Turkey’s communications minister, his office said.

Karhi also received an invitation to visit the Sukkah of Mohammed Saud, a prominent Israel supporter in Riyadh, Karhi’s office said.

Saudi Arabia has no official local Jewish community, though the kingdom is thought to host a number of Jewish businesspeople.

“We’re here during the Sukkot holiday, at an international conference. We’ll meet with representatives from around the world, and will bring the peace between the State of Israel and Saudi Arabia closer,” Karhi said in a video statement after landing in Riyadh.

“Everything starts with small steps, so this is the beginning, and we’ll see in the future how things develop for the benefit of the State of Israel and peace in the Middle East,” Bitan said.

Karhi, Bitan and Katz are all members of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party.

The service came exactly a week after Katz landed in Saudi Arabia for a United Nations World Tourism Organization conference, becoming the first minister to lead an official delegation to the country.

Tourism Minister Haim Katz in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on September 27, 2023, on the first such high-level public mission to the oil-rich kingdom. (Israeli Tourism Ministry via AFP)

Earlier last month, an Israeli delegation of nine staffers flew to Saudi Arabia as observers for the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting. The delegation was led by the head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority and included diplomats, according to an Israeli official.

The trips come as US President Joe Biden’s administration is actively engaging Riyadh and Jerusalem to try to broker a normalization deal between the two countries. As part of the framework, Saudi Arabia is also asking the US for a major mutual defense pact and significant arms deals, as well as Israeli concessions to the Palestinians.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday that a “basic framework” on a deal has been reached, but stressed the “complex” arrangement would require “compromise” from all sides.

Speaking last month at the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was “on the cusp” of a historic deal with Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, told Fox News that “every day we get closer” to his country normalizing ties with Israel, while clarifying that the Palestinian issue is still a “very important” component of the process and declaring that Saudi Arabia will have to obtain a nuclear weapon if Iran does.

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