In first, Israeli officials in Saudi Arabia for UNESCO conference

Bureaucrats and diplomats attend World Heritage meeting, after US asked Israel to withdraw efforts to secure visas for foreign and education ministers

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay speaks during the opening ceremony of the UNESCO Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee at the al-Murabba Palace in Riyadh on September 10, 2023. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)
UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay speaks during the opening ceremony of the UNESCO Extended 45th session of the World Heritage Committee at the al-Murabba Palace in Riyadh on September 10, 2023. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

An Israeli delegation of nine staffers is currently in Saudi Arabia as observers to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meeting, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Sunday.

The delegation is led by the head of Israel’s Antiquities Authority and includes diplomats, a different Israeli official said. It is not a bilateral visit, and it was unclear whether the group would meet with Saudi officials.

Saudi Arabia and Israel do not have diplomatic relations, though the White House has been pushing them toward normalizing relations.

Last week, Israel reportedly backed off its attempts to have two ministers publicly enter the kingdom for the UN meeting.

After pressure from the US, Israel decided not to push for visas for Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Channel 13 reported.

The Saudis had been introducing obstacles during the visa process, according to the report.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen meets with UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay in Paris on July 19, 2023. (UNESCO)

American officials advised Israel not to put Riyadh in an uncomfortable position while a far more significant bilateral normalization deal was in the works.

The bureaucrats attended the conference instead.

In July, Saudi Arabia signed the “host country agreement,” in which it commits to allowing all signatories to the World Heritage Convention — which includes Israel — to freely enter the country for the event, according to a report by Axios, which cited two sources with knowledge of the issue.

The Saudis had reportedly refused to sign the agreement in June, protesting Israel’s participation in the conference.

But UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay was said to insist that Israeli representatives be granted entry into the country and that official invites will be sent in the coming days, according to the report.

File: Israel’s then-envoy to UNESCO, Carmel Shama-Hacohen, attempts to deliver official papers announcing Israel’s withdrawal from the cultural organization, December 28, 2017. (Courtesy)

The Foreign Ministry, the Saudi embassy in Washington, and UNESCO officials did not offer a comment on the report.

Israel officially left the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2019, over alleged anti-Israel bias. Sites in the country remain listed on the World Heritage List, and Israel still sends representatives to the World Heritage Committee, which is in charge of designating those sites.

During the meeting between Cohen and Azoulay in July, the UNESCO chief said she is working to depoliticize the body and sees Israel’s return as holding great importance, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Although Israel and Saudi Arabia don’t have official relations, Israeli journalists, businessmen and other figures have increasingly been allowed to visit the Islamic kingdom in recent years.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last week that the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia have a general idea of the major elements of a potential normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Riyadh, but there is still much more work to do before a deal can be signed.

Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman (L) and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan meet at the White House on May 18, 2022. (Khalid bin Salman/Twitter)

In exchange for normalizing ties with Israel, Saudi Arabia is asking for a major defense pact with the US in addition to US cooperation in establishing its own civilian nuclear program. Washington, in turn, is looking for Riyadh to pair down its economic and military dealings with China and Russia.

In order to shore up support for the deal among congressional Democrats and the pro-Palestinian public in Saudi Arabia and the broader Muslim world, Israel will likely be asked to offer significant concessions to the Palestinians that would advance a two-state solution — a pill that will be difficult for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government to swallow.

In March, Axios reported that Saudi Arabia barred Cohen from leading a delegation to the UN World Tourism Organization conference. Cohen was unable to travel after the Saudis refused to discuss security arrangements, according to unnamed Israeli officials.

The delegation that was meant to travel — representing the Circassian town of Kfar Kama in the Galilee region of northern Israel — was barred after Riyadh denied their visa requests.

The town was selected in December as an international “tourist village” by the United Nations World Tourism Organization.

In July, a team of Israeli gamers was allowed into Saudi Arabia to participate in the video game version of the FIFA World Cup.

The 45th session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which begins Sunday and runs until Sept. 25.

Jacob Magid and AP contributed to this report. 

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