Mar 13, 2023 - World

Scoop: Saudis effectively block Israeli minister's trip to kingdom for UN conference

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen. Photo: Christian Marquardt/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Saudi Arabia initially approved a request for Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen to enter the country this week for the UN World Tourism Organization conference, but wouldn't seriously discuss the diplomat's security details, effectively blocking his trip, three Israeli officials said.

The big picture: In the past, Israeli ministers used UN conferences and international sports competitions as a way to visit Arab countries that Israel didn't have diplomatic relations with, mainly the United Arab Emirates.

  • These visits played a central role in gradually creating a de-facto normalization process between Israel and the UAE that made the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020 possible.
  • A country that hosts international UN meetings commits to allowing all member states to attend regardless of whether that nation has diplomatic relations with the others.

Driving the news: The UN World Tourism Organization invited representatives from an Arab village in Israel and representatives of the Israeli Tourism Ministry for the conference in AlUla.

  • But the Israeli Foreign Ministry had a more ambitious goal for the conference: to send Cohen as the head of the delegation — which would have been seen as a modest but unprecedented normalization step, the three Israeli officials told Axios. No Israeli minister has ever publicly visited the kingdom.

Behind the scenes: The Israelis approached the World Tourism Organization and the Biden administration to help them get the "green light" for Cohen to attend, the Israeli officials said.

  • White House and State Department officials urged the Saudis to agree, per the Israeli officials. The White House declined to comment.
  • According to the officials, Saudi Arabia told the World Tourism Organization that Cohen could attend the conference with two staffers. But when it came time to finalize Cohen's security arrangements — a typical step for any traveling Israeli minister — it became clear that the Saudis weren't going to have a serious discussion, the Israeli officials said. That forced Cohen to take the trip off his agenda.
  • The delegation initially invited also didn't travel to the kingdom because they didn't get a response from the Saudis in time on their visa requests, Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported.

What they're saying: The Israeli officials said they believed the timing of the conference — two weeks before the holy month of Ramadan — was problematic for the Saudis.

  • “Eventually the Saudis found a way to say 'yes' to the UN as they had to but at the same time create conditions that won’t allow the visit to happen," a senior Israeli official told Axios.
  • The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to separate requests for comment. The UN World Tourism Organization also didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

State of play: Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, Israel has focused its diplomatic efforts on pushing for normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia.

  • In public, Saudi officials have made clear they won’t normalize relations with Israel without progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
  • Still, there's been progress, including a historic deal around two strategic Red Sea islands that officials saw as paving the way for Saudi Arabia to take steps toward normalization.

What to watch: Israeli officials noted that Saudi Arabia is hosting several UN conferences later this year.

  • They stressed they hope that after Ramadan it will be easier for the Saudis to allow the participation of an Israeli minister in one of those conferences.
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