WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s participation in the U.S.-sponsored talks on Middle East peace was seen as a diplomatic coup for the Bush administration but the kingdom has made clear there will be no handshakes with Israeli officials.
“We are not here for theater. We are here for the serious business of making peace. We are not here to give an impression that everything is normal,” Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters on Monday, on the eve of the conference to be held in Annapolis, Maryland.
“We will not do anything that will divert from the seriousness of the occasion, (such as) shaking hands to give an impression of something that is not there,” he said.
Saudi Arabia had been noncommittal until last week over whether it would attend the Annapolis conference. The kingdom, which is the birthplace of Islam, has no diplomatic relations with Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggested he would not be offended by the lack of handshake, nor would he push the issue.
“I won’t extend my hand to whoever isn’t ready to shake the hand of the people of Israel,” Olmert said, referring to the Saudi foreign minister. “But I am happy he is here.”
Handshakes have been important symbols in past Middle East peacemaking efforts.
In 1979, when Egypt became the first of any of Israel’s neighbors to sign a peace treaty with it, the deal was sealed with a handshake on the White House lawn between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
And in 1993, with U.S. President Bill Clinton looking on, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat shook hands in public for the first time.
Bush last week telephoned Saudi King Abdullah to formally invite his country to participate in the Annapolis conference.
Faisal said the Saudis agreed to attend because they had been given “the assurance that the United States will use its full influence in the negotiations for final status to bring about an agreement” between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
“If the two sides don’t come with enough ideas to settle these issues, we assume that the United States will come with its own ideas,” he said.