At an invitation-only luncheon in Washington this week, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the US publicly acknowledged for the first time that his country continues to enforce the Arab boycott of Israel, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
The ambassador also contradicted assertions made by senior Bush Administration trade officials regarding assurances they said they had received from the Saudis, prompting Rep. Robert Wexler, a powerful member of Congress, to say he will demand clarification from the US Trade Representative's Office on the issue.
Attending a June 19 "policy lunch" organized by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki al-Faisal was invited to deliver an address regarding the state of US-Muslim relations.
During the question-andanswer session following his remarks, al-Faisal was asked to describe the steps taken by Riyadh to dismantle its boycott of the Jewish state.
According to a transcript obtained by the Post, the ambassador responded by saying that his government had informed American officials, "that we have removed the secondary and tertiary boycotts" of Israel, which prohibit trade with companies that operate in Israel or have ties to such firms.
However, al-Faisal noted, "the primary boycott is an issue of national sovereignty guaranteed within the makeup of the WTO and its rules," and said that even "the US itself practices this" against other countries.
The primary boycott refers to an embargo on goods or services originating in Israel.
Al-Faisal's admission that Saudi Arabia continues to enforce the boycott confirms reports which first appeared in the Post over the past few months, according to which Riyadh was violating a pledge made to the Bush Administration last year to drop the embargo.
Washington had conditioned the desert kingdom's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) on its removal of the boycott, and the Saudis were allowed to join the group in December only after promising to do so.
The WTO, which aims to promote free trade, prohibits members from engaging in discriminatory practices such as boycotts or embargoes.
Nonetheless, as first revealed in the Post, the Saudis played host in March to a major international conference aimed at intensifying the anti-Israel boycott, and an official Saudi delegation took part in a meeting of the Arab League's boycott office in Damascus in May.
In his remarks at the Washington luncheon, al-Faisal also said he had personally informed American officials of the Saudi intention to maintain the primary boycott of Israel. "This is what I have informed your governmental officials," he said.
This appeared to contradict assertions made on several occasions by the US Trade Representative's Office, as well as by other American officials, who have said the Saudis told them they would drop the boycott completely.
In testimony earlier this year before the US House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee, then-US Trade Representative Rob Portman said, "We've received assurances from Saudi Arabia. They will abide by their WTO commitments." And last month, US Deputy Trade Representative Susan Schwab, in written responses to questions raised by members of the Senate Finance Committee, said that Saudi Arabia had told Washington it was abiding by its pledge to end the boycott of the Jewish state.
Asked to explain the discrepancy between al-Faisal's version of what he told US officials, and what US officials claim the Saudis told them, Stephen J. Norton, a spokesman for the US Trade Representative, said via e-mail that, "I have not seen the comments so I cannot comment specifically. All I can say is that in our view maintaining the primary boycott of Israel is not consistent with Saudi Arabia's obligation to extend full WTO treatment to all WTO Members."
But a prominent Congressman who has been an outspoken opponent of the Arab boycott of Israel expressed indignation at the Saudi Ambassador's remarks.
Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat and senior member of the House International Relations Committee, told the Post by phone that, "The American understanding is that Saudi Arabia must not discriminate against any WTO country, including Israel."
"Saudi Arabia is violating its commitments to the US, and the Bush Administration needs to confront them on this," Wexler said.
The five-term Congressman said it was unacceptable that "the Saudi Ambassador flaunts their enforcement of the primary boycott and parades it around Washington. This is highly inflammatory, and to let them get away with this would be a serious error on America's part." He said that he supported the idea that Congress should lay out a set of clear criteria which the US Trade Representative would be obligated to use in order to determine if a country is complying with its commitment to drop the boycott of Israel.
"We need to go a step further and set up a system of accountability to ensure that countries fulfill their obligations," he said, adding, "That process needs to occur, because then there would be no need for guesswork by the US Trade Representative."
Pointing out that the Saudi Ambassador's claim to have informed US officials of the ongoing boycott contradicts what US trade officials have said, Wexler concluded that, "either the Saudi Ambassador or American officials are not telling the truth."
"My intention," he said, "is to write a letter to the US Trade Representative and to ask them to confirm what exactly the Saudis told them."
"And if the Saudis are being duplicitous," he warned, "there need to be consequences."