Israeli officials reportedly blocked from Saudi-hosted Paris event despite invite

Pair may have been removed from guest list in light of government policies in West Bank, recent escalation in violence, according to Hebrew-language report

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, arrives at the New Global Financial summit in Paris, June 22, 2023 (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, center, arrives at the New Global Financial summit in Paris, June 22, 2023 (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

Israeli diplomats were not permitted to enter an event hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Paris this week despite having been invited, it was reported Friday.

According to the Walla news site, the two Israeli officials had been invited to the reception held by Riyadh in the French capital as part of its major push to host the 2030 World Fair’s Expo.

The report suggested that the rescinding of the invitation could be a response by Riyadh to the hardline Israeli government’s policy in the West Bank and the recent escalation in violence.

The news site said the two Israelis who had been expected to attend the event were the ambassador to UNESCO and the OECD, Haim Asraf, and the official responsible for the Expo at the Foreign Ministry, Elazar Cohen.

The two were said to have arrived at the reception, only to find that their names had been removed from the guest list.

A senior Foreign Ministry official reportedly tried to clarify the matter with Riyadh, but did not get an answer, so the two men left the event.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman smiles at the New Global Financial summit in Paris, June 22, 2023 (Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP)

An official told the news site that they were still trying to understand why the Saudis had changed their minds about the presence of the Israelis at the event.

The Paris event was held a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government passed a controversial resolution that gives practically all control over planning approval for construction in West Bank settlements to Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, an ultranationalist advocate of settlements.

On the day of the reception, the Israel Defense Forces carried out a raid on the West Bank city of Jenin, during which six Palestinians were killed, including two teens.

In the wake of the operation, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry slammed what it called “the Israeli escalation in the occupied Palestinian territories, the latest of which was the aggression in the city of Jenin…. which led to killing innocent victims and the injuries of others.”

The invitation extended to Israel to attend the Paris reception was first reported by Kan earlier in the week, although the public broadcaster said there was only one Israeli expected to attend.

The report said that the invitation came as Israel was readying to support Riyadh’s campaign to host the 2030 World Fair’s Expo. The Expo host city will be decided in November.

The invitation and the support for the bid were said to reinforce the message from Jerusalem that it is interested in warming its ties with Saudi Arabia, the unsourced report said, as US President Joe Biden’s administration works to try to persuade the countries to make the necessary concessions for a normalization deal.

Earlier this month, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan said that Riyadh normalizing ties with Israel would bring significant benefits to the region but that those benefits would be limited by the absence of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Bin Farhan’s acknowledgment that normalizing ties with Israel would offer “significant benefits” appeared to stand out from previous comments.

Saudi Foreign Affairs minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan arrives at the Bureau International des Exposition (BIE) to discuss Riyadh’s bid to host Expo 2030 World Expo in Issy-Les-Moulineaux, on June 20, 2023. (JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Also this month, Netanyahu said in an interview that an Israeli normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia would be “a quantum leap forward” and “would change history” if it could be achieved, while saying such a deal was one of his primary policy goals in his latest term in office.

Speaking to Sky News, the premier said he could not guarantee that a deal will happen as “it’s up to the Saudis” but that he “certainly hope[s] so.”

Saudi Arabia, Netanyahu said, “is the most influential Arab country, not only in the Arab world — I think also in the Muslim world. It would fashion I think the possibility of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, and I think that would also help us solve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.”

However, The New York Times reported Saturday that despite ramping up efforts to reach an Israeli-Saudi normalization deal, Washington does not view that scenario as particularly likely.

The report cited several American officials who assessed the chances of a deal at less than 50 percent.

But “Biden has decided to go for it, and everyone in the administration now understands that the president wants this,” Martin Indyk, former US envoy to Israel, told the newspaper.

It noted that, as previously reported, Saudi Arabia has demanded that the US cooperate with the kingdom on uranium enrichment for civilian purposes. Other demands by bin Salman are American guarantees to defend the country if it is attacked, and a removal of certain barriers on arms sales to the kingdom, according to two US officials cited by the paper.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jeddah on June 7, 2023. (Amer Hilabi/Pool Photo via AP)

The report said bin Salman understands he will need to give up the previous Saudi demand for a Palestinian state or significant peace negotiations prior to normalization and appears open to the matter, though he will likely want significant benefits for the Palestinians, which have not yet been named.

Saudi officials have long said publicly that they won’t normalize relations with Israel before the establishment of a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 lines, even though they’ve offered more flexibility behind closed doors.

The report noted that bin Salman’s main interest in normalizing with Israel would be the American concessions he could sell at home, where peace with the Jewish state would be broadly unpopular.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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