Respect must go both ways in Israel-Middle East normalization - editorial

The incident in Mecca needs to be used for education. While Israel wants to have normal relations with the Islamic world, there is also much to learn about this new relationship.

 Saudi police officer stands guard as pilgrims arrive to perform their final Tawaf in the Grand Mosque, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 20, 2021. (photo credit: SAUDI MINISTRY OF MEDIA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Saudi police officer stands guard as pilgrims arrive to perform their final Tawaf in the Grand Mosque, in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 20, 2021.
(photo credit: SAUDI MINISTRY OF MEDIA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

An Israeli reporter from Channel 13 created potential for offense and controversy when he went to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. The visit comes as Israel and Saudi Arabia are growing closer, so the incident was not helpful in inspiring confidence in the ability of people to be responsible and considerate. This isn’t a question of press freedom or even what is necessarily right on the question of whether people should theoretically be able to travel where they want. This is about observing sensitives and showing respect, especially at the beginning of a new fledgling relationship.

The reporter, Gil Tamary, had traveled to Saudi Arabia in the context of the visit by US President Joe Biden. He notes that non-Muslims are not allowed into Mecca. Nonetheless, he proceeded to detail how he managed to enter the city and go up Mount Arafat with a Muslim driver in spite of the prohibition.

Tamary stressed that the driver did not know that he was an Israeli journalist, as he took care to speak only in English.

The incident caused controversy within the Gulf. It has the potential to make Saudi Arabia slow down any process of normalization amid criticism that it is, in any case, coming under from across the Islamic world. The kingdom has worked to overcome past anti-Israel views. It has worked not only to moderate its stance and those of its citizens but also to encourage Muslims to be more moderate. This shift is important; upsetting sensitivities can set this trend back.

Mohammed Saud, a Saudi blogger known for promoting coexistence, expressed displeasure on social media. “My dear friends in Israel, a journalist of yours entered the Muslim holy city of Mecca and took video without shame. This is like if I were to enter a synagogue and read from the Torah. Shame on you, Channel 13, to hurt the Muslim religion like this. You are arrogant.

 SAUDI CROWN Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps US President Joe Biden upon the president’s arrival in Jeddah, on Friday. A fist-bump may not seem like much, but it amounted to a truckload of humble pie for Biden, says the writer (credit: REUTERS) SAUDI CROWN Prince Mohammed bin Salman fist bumps US President Joe Biden upon the president’s arrival in Jeddah, on Friday. A fist-bump may not seem like much, but it amounted to a truckload of humble pie for Biden, says the writer (credit: REUTERS)

“What did he find out [that] they did not know about the place?” Saud asked. “The place is filmed 24 hours a day, there is Google today and you can check everything about this place. He knew he was violating the law of the country. He knew he was violating the religion of Islam, but he and his channel decided to show contempt and hit us with unparalleled impudence.”

Israel’s Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej, himself a Muslim Arab, also slammed the incident. He said it was a stupid thing for someone to take pride in and called it irresponsible. Channel 13 apologized if people were offended by the incident.

As we weigh this incident, it is important to look at the broader implications. After the Abraham Accords were signed and Israelis began visiting the Gulf in large numbers, there were concerns that there would be incidents that would reflect badly on the Jewish state. When you have large numbers of tourists, some of them are going to behave badly. There have been Israelis arrested overseas for drug possession, although apparently nothing that has been overly offensive or jarring.

The incident in Mecca needs to be used for education. While Israel wants to have normal relations with the Islamic world, there is also much to learn about this new relationship. Whether it is regarding Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain or countries such as Sudan and Kosovo, in each case where we have new ties, we should try our utmost to learn about the new country and its traditions.

This goes both ways. We expect that tourists will be coming from the Gulf to Israel. There are groups that are already coming from across Africa, Asia and the Americas. We expect them to behave with respect at the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other sites.

In fact, Israel has experience trying to balance competing interests and religious sensitivities on the Temple Mount. We have not always been successful, but we understand that when different religions share sites in close proximity, each must respect the other. When they do not do so, those sites can become flashpoints. There are too many enemies who want to exploit these flashpoints. We should not give them the fuel to do so.