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'We came to play a role in engineering history'

Peace with Saudi Arabia a matter of time, say Israelis who recently visited kingdom

Entrepreneur Avi Jorisch, who brought 50 Jewish business leaders to Medina, describes genuine curiosity by his hosts along with some difficult conversations

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israeli-American businessman Avi Jorisch in Medina, Saudi Arabia, at the head of a delegation of 50 Jewish business leaders (courtesy)
Israeli-American businessman Avi Jorisch in Medina, Saudi Arabia, at the head of a delegation of 50 Jewish business leaders (courtesy)

As covert ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel moved into the spotlight ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to the two Middle Eastern countries this week, a group of some 50 prominent Jewish business leaders visited the kingdom, led by an Israeli entrepreneur.

Avi Jorisch, the driving force behind trip, told The Times of Israel this week that the May visit convinced him that Israeli-Saudi normalization was “a question of when, not if.”

“It felt like we were engineering history,” Jorisch reflected. “This was done very intentionally and very mindfully. We felt like we were ambassadors for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and we came to play a role in engineering history.”

Rabbi Steven Burg, CEO of Aish Global, expressed similar sentiments after the trip. “It seems to be an almost inevitable next step for what they want to do with Vision 2030.”

Saudi Vision 2030, a sweeping national blueprint for economic, social, and cultural advancement, is the brainchild of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“There was a sense that the Saudis wanted to go slower than the other countries for several reasons, it might take a couple of years,” Burg said, referring to several Arab nations that normalized ties with Israel in 2020.

Citing privacy and safety, Jorisch declined to provide the names of the other participants.

Aish Global CEO Steven Burg (R) and Bahrain’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah al Khallfa (courtesy)

The group, which included a few non-Jewish members, met in Bahrain and spent a Shabbat in Manama before droving to Saudi Arabia.

In Bahrain, the group met with officials from the Finance and National Economy Ministry.

The group held prayers every day, which was especially important for Burg, who is in the 11-month mourning period for his father during which he must recite the Kaddish prayer with a quorum of ten Jewish men.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (left) presents a Torah scroll to Bahrain’s king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, while visiting the Gulf state in early September, 2020. (Twitter/Avi Berkowitz)

For Shabbat, the delegation used the Torah scroll that Donald Trump adviser Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew, had given Bahrain’s king in September 2020. Burg carried the scroll from Manama’s synagogue through the main marketplace on the way to the hotel.

Several members of the local Jewish community and Muslim Bahrainis joined for the Friday night service.

After Shabbat, the delegation headed for Riyadh, where they spoke with economic officials and interacted with locals in the streets. The group was surprised by the number of Saudis they encountered who spoke fluent English, a product of university studies in the US.

Burg, who wore his kippah openly in Riyadh, said, “I didn’t even feel a semblance of a double-take or anything.”

They then flew to Medina, Islam’s second-holiest city and burial site of the Prophet Muhammad. The group was struck by the stark difference between Riyadh and Medina, the former a business hub and the latter a religious center, Burg recalled.

Nuanced and difficult conversations

Jorisch, an Arabic speaker who has written and published several books on Israel and innovation, visited Saudi Arabia for the first time in February 2020 with a group of Washington, DC, policymakers. “It was a tremendous trip with extraordinary visibility into the power brokers of Saudi Arabia,” he said. “And based on those connections, I put together another trip that took place in May that allowed us to really have exposure to the who’s-who of Saudi Arabia when it came to the business and government communities.

“All of us are deeply connected to Israel, each of us wanting to bridge the divide between Saudi Arabia and Israel and build a powerful business bridge that — if and when peace is signed between the two countries — we can really feel like we played a role in making that happen,” said Jorisch.

US President Joe Biden (left) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. (Collage/AP)

Jorisch said that there was a “genuine curiosity” about Israel and its challenges, though not all conversations on the trip were easy.

The threat emanating from Tehran was a recurring topic of conversation. “Everyone expressed reservations about Iran,” said Burg. “There is a certain sense that Iran is really out there to make trouble. It’s not just the Jews in Israel. You realize that Iran is a country that’s deeply problematic to all kinds of countries around the world.”

Not surprisingly, the Palestinian issue was a subject of the more difficult conversations. But the questions were nuanced, Jorisch said, revolving around the peace plan presented by the Saudis in 2002 and Israel’s approach to solving the conflict.

The Saudis were upset about Biden calling the country “pariahs,” and were eager to discuss the progress made on women’s rights. They also answered questions from the delegation about the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents.

There was a particular interest in Israel’s startup culture, and its technological innovations around water, food, defense, and space. “There was a deep interest and a desire to harness some of the capabilities that Israel has created,” Jorsich said. “Now, I can’t say that Saudi Arabia is ready today to lean into Israel tech and buy it directly — that would be a gross mischaracterization. There is a genuine curiosity and deep interest in what Israel has already solved on these issues, and how Saudi Arabia can leverage those technologies for its own interests.”

People make their way before prayer at Al-Masjid an-Nabawi or the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque, the second holiest site in Islam, after the annual hajj pilgrimage on last day of Eid al-Adha, in the Saudi holy city of Medina Sept. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

“The conversations that we had with Saudis were nuanced, they were thoughtful, they were empathic, they were compassionate,” said Jorisch. “It was a breath of fresh air.”

Jorisch was born in the US, and moved to Israel as a child with his family. He worked in the US Defense and Treasury departments on terrorism issues, and currently heads a fintech company while moonlighting as a senior fellow at American Foreign Policy Council.

Many members of the delegation were initially apprehensive about coming. One couple was even afraid they would never see their children again.

On the flight to Medina, one participant was sitting for the first time next to woman whose face was fully covered in a niqab. During the flight, she told Jorisch that in the past she would have asked to move seats, but after being in the kingdom, she realized “that we are the same.”

The Riyadh Tower in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia at night. (MOHAMED HUSSAIN YOUNIS via iStock by Getty Images)

Another Israeli man — “an extraordinarily successful member of the business community,” in Jorisch’s words — was told in no uncertain terms by his security officer not to make the trip. The businessman insisted on going, and told Jorisch during a welcome event on the first evening, “This is the opposite of what I expected. This really has blown my mind.”

Burg heard about the trip from Jorisch two months before. “For me, it was intellectual curiosity, just to understand perspectives of Bahrainis, who have already made peace with Israel, and Saudis, who may well be on the way to make peace with Israel.”

Jorisch would not share who exactly the group met with, but did stress that they were with “the who’s who of Saudi Arabia, in the government, business, and policy communities.”

There were almost no negative reactions to the Jewish and Israeli business leaders, according to Jorisch. “The most discouraging thing that happened was on the way to the airport, my Uber got lost.”

Growing ties

Other Israelis have made trips to the kingdom recently.

Channel 13 military correspondent Alon Ben-David and a fellow Israeli reporter identified as Israelis during their trip to Riyadh, where they were met with some coldness but not outright hostility.

Israeli Channel 13 reporter Alon Ben-David in a mosque in Riyadh (Channel 13 screenshot)

Israel and Saudi Arabia do not have official diplomatic relations, but covert ties have warmed in recent years as the Saudi crown prince, bin Salman, has reportedly seen Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.

The kingdom refrained from signing onto the Washington-brokered Abraham Accords in 2020 as the US and Israel had hoped, but Riyadh is believed to have given the go-ahead to Bahrain, where it retains decisive influence, to join the normalization agreement with Israel alongside the United Arab Emirates and Morocco.

In addition, after the accords were signed, Saudi Arabia began allowing Israeli airlines to use its airspace for flights to and from the UAE and Bahrain. But Israel has not yet received such access for flights to India, Thailand and China, which as a result are significantly longer than they need be.

In May, The Wall Street Journal reported that Saudi Arabia is planning to allocate millions of dollars for investments in Israeli tech companies via Kushner’s new private equity firm. Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, set up Affinity Partners late last year, raising some $3 billion in committed funding from international investors, including the Saudis.

The Wall Street Journal report said Riyadh has eyed two Israeli companies for investment, though the names of the firms were not disclosed, nor the sectors in which they operate.

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