US-Israeli Christian leader discusses peace process with Saudi crown prince

Jerusalem resident Joel C. Rosenberg leads second-ever Evangelical delegation to the Muslim kingdom, is hosted in Jeddah’s royal palace

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Joel C. Rosenberg, left, is greeted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 10, 2019 (courtesy Saudi Embassy in Washington)
Joel C. Rosenberg, left, is greeted by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 10, 2019 (courtesy Saudi Embassy in Washington)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman this week hosted an Israeli Christian leader in Jeddah, where the two discussed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The meeting between Jerusalem resident Joel C. Rosenberg and one of the Gulf’s most powerful rulers came as Riyadh has attempted to increase its outreach to Evangelical leaders as it seeks to grow closer ties with Washington.

Rosenberg, a dual US-Israeli citizen, led a delegation of American Evangelicals on a three-day tour to Jeddah, the second group of high-profile church figures he has brought to the conservative kingdom in recent years.

Rosenberg, who has both Christian and Jewish ancestors, told his host, known colloquially as MBS, about his desire to see an Israeli-Saudi détente and said he hoped to see him visit Jerusalem soon.

“We had a fascinating discussion of Israel, the Palestinians and the peace process. While what he told us was off the record, we spent at least 30 minutes of our meeting discussing Israel,” Rosenberg told The Times of Israel.

“I told him I would love to see our two countries make peace, and look forward to the time when he would be ready to invite Israel’s prime minister to Riyadh and we are ready to invite him to Jerusalem.”

Rosenberg, who has two children currently serving in combat units in the IDF, said he told the future Saudi king about the biblical story of the Queen of Sheba, whom he described as a “powerful woman who ruled a kingdom on the Arabian Peninsula and decided to travel to Jerusalem to forge a friendship and alliance with Solomon, the King of Israel.”

Jerusalem and Riyadh are long known to have clandestine security ties, as both see in Iran an existential threat, but the Gulf kingdom does not formally recognize the State of Israel. Some pro-Israel advocates were hoping that MBS, 34, would be more open to consider diplomatic relations with Israel, but so far he has made no move toward recognition.

The nine-member delegation included Rosenberg’s wife Lynn, who is also a dual US-Israeli citizen. Despite being practicing Christians, the couple immigrated to Israel a few years ago, based on his right of return due to his father’s Jewish roots.

At about the same time the delegation sat with MBS and other top Saudi officials, including the deputy defense minister and the minister of state for foreign affairs, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his intention to annex Israeli settlements in the West Bank is he wins the September 17 election.

A few hours after the meeting, Saudi Arabia issued a strong condemnation, condemning Netanyahu’s move “a grave escalation at the expense of the Palestinian people” and urged other countries to do the same. The kingdom also called for an emergency meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation to discuss the matter.

Rosenberg, who several years ago briefly worked for Netanyahu, found himself in an awkward position.

“With two Israeli citizens — my wife and me — actually sitting in the Royal Palace in Jeddah with the Saudi Crown Prince discussing the road to peace between Israel and the Kingdom, could there have been a more disappointing moment for the prime minister to make a political campaign statement that forced the Saudis into a corner and into feeling that they needed to issue an outright condemnation and rejection of the PM’s proposal?” he said.

A delegation of US Evangelicals headed Joel C. Rosenberg, meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, September 10, 2019 (courtesy)

Rosenberg is a New York Times best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction books about the Middle East, and head of nonprofit helping Christians across the Middle East. Last year, he also hosted unprecedented Evangelical delegations to Egypt and Jordan. He is scheduled to take a group to Bahrain later this year.

This week’s delegation to Jeddah was organized by the Saudi ambassador to the US, Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, whose office issued a brief statement, including several photos, about the rare meeting.

“During the meeting, the two sides stressed the importance of ongoing efforts to promote coexistence and tolerance, and combat extremism and terrorism,” the statement said. It did not mention Rosenberg’s Israeli citizenship or his Jewish roots; neither did the press release Rosenberg’s delegation released. Rather, it thanked the crown prince for his hospitality and highlighted reform efforts, as did all of their meetings, it said.

“While it may surprise some that we would choose the week of ‪September 11‬ to visit the Kingdom, we actually feel there is no more appropriate time to focus on where the Kingdom must go, can go, and where we believe it is going,” the press release stated.”

“In fact, our visit here on this profoundly important week is in defiance of those that aim to derail reform in the Kingdom through an embrace of hate and fear rather than courage and moderation.”

The delegation, whose first historic visit in November 2018 made international headlines, said it was grateful to have “deepening relationships” in the gulf state, “where trust is invaluable and where change is a topic of daily conversation.

“This increasing trust has afforded us the opportunity to talk openly, if sometimes privately, about what we believe must change in the Kingdom even as we celebrate the Kingdom’s progress in so many other areas.”

The statement praised Saudi Arabia for “diversification” of its economy and for the introduction of “various forms of openness and modernization,” especially regarding women’s rights.

“Our meetings were unhurried and our discussions were substantive,” the statement said.

“Frankly, we’re delighted at the scope of the developments even as we look with expectation for more change. We are also patient friends with realistic expectations that it will take time to reform what took years to create.”

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