In a rare occurrence, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon shook the hand of Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki al-Faisal during the annual security conference in Munich on Saturday. The handshake was preceded by the prince's attempts at avoiding participation in a panel alongside Ayalon, a consequent uproar and a sharp American condemnation of the Saudi behavior.
The security conference took place over the weekend, and was attended by dozens of world leaders, foreign ministers and senior officials. On Saturday, a panel convened on the topic of the Middle East. The panel was to include both Ayalon and the Saudi prince, who formerly served as the head of the Saudi intelligence service, as well as the Turkish foreign minister, U.S. Senator Joe Lieberman and senior Egyptian and Russian officials.
However, when Ayalon arrived at the conference on Friday, he discovered that the panel in which he was set to participate had been split into two separate panels. The first panel was to include the Saudi prince and other Saudi officials, as well as officials from Egypt and Turkey, followed by a separate panel to include himself, Lieberman and the American and Russia representatives.
According to Israeli diplomats, the split was a Saudi request. Prince al-Faisal refused to sit on the same stage as Ayalon and the organizers heeded his request and split the panel.
Ayalon began his talk saying it appeared "a representative of a country with a lot of oil" had pressed the organizers to separate the panel because he "did not want to sit with us,"
This is microcosm of the Middle East conflict. The Arabs refuse to sit with us, recognize us or talk to us, Ayalon added.
This showed a lack of mutual respect and tolerance, a failing at the heart of the region's problems, he said.
U.S. Senator Lieberman joined Ayalon's criticism, saying "I am disappointed with the Saudis," adding that he had thought that he was participating in a six-person panel, only to discover that the panels had been split because the Saudis refuse to sit with the Israelis.
In the subsequent question and answer session, prince al-Faisal stood up in the audience and said it was not he who had objected and the splitting of the panel was probably due to Ayalon's "boorish behavior" with Turkey's envoy to Israel.
This was a reference to a public dressing down Ayalon gave Ambassador Oguz Celikkol in January. Ayalon later conceded his behavior toward the envoy had been inappropriate. Israel has apologized for the incident.
Ayalon responded by saying that the Saudi prince had called into question his integrity. He added: "If indeed it was not him who objected to my being here with him, I would welcome him to shake my outstretched hand."
The prince refused to get on the stage, but Ayalon did not lose his stride, announcing that he would be willing to get off the stage. He then walked toward the prince and shook his hand. "Israel is committed to peace," he told the prince.
The handshake was a rare public occurrence between an Israeli and a Saudi official. Prince al-Faisal holds no official post in Saudi Arabia currently, but he is considered to have a very high status among Saudi royalty.
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