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SAUDI ARABIA: Prince Turki Al Faisal backpedals after shaking hands with Israeli politician

February 8, 2010 |  6:52 am

Just one day after shaking hands with the Israeli deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, to thunderous applause, Saudi Arabia's Prince Turki Al Faisal released a statement denying the gesture signals any change in official policy towards Israel.

"My strong objections and condemnations of Israel's policies and actions against the Palestinians remain unchanged," the former Saudi intelligence chief said in a statement released Sunday. "[Israel's Arab neighbors] should not be pressured into rewarding Israel for the return of land that does not belong to it in the first place."

"Until Israel heeds U.S. President [Barack] Obama’s call for the removal of all settlements, the Israelis must be under no illusion that Saudi Arabia will offer what they most desire — regional recognition."

The handshake was meant to ease tensions after a minor diplomatic row broke out over seating at an international security conference in Munich, Germany.

Picture 32 Ayalon accused Faisal of conspiring to split a panel that was to include representatives from several countries including Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Russia and the U.S. because the Saudi did not wish to sit next to the Israeli.

Faisal said he objected to sitting next to Ayalon not because Ayalon was Israeli, but because of Ayalon's "boorish" behavior toward the Turkish ambassador to Israel, Ahmet Oguz Celikkol.

Ayalon was forced to apologize to Turkey last month after breaching diplomatic protocol with Celikkol in an attempt to shame the Turkish ambassador over a controversial television show.

The statement also said Faisal defended his country against Ayalon's accusation that Saudi Arabia had "not given a penny" to the Palestinian Authority, saying: "[I reminded] him that the Kingdom has given more than $500 million in the last five years to the PA as a stop-gap measure."

Ayalon apologized to Faisal and the two shook hands in a gesture of reconciliation, but presumably the Saudi caught enough flack for it to release a clarifying statement.

Saudi Arabia is often criticized for failing to take a tough stance against Israel, and even tacitly recognizing it, although it refuses to do so officially. In many Arab countries, shaking hands with an Israeli would mean political suicide, at least, and could even mean jail time.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Video: The audience cheers as the Israeli deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, left, and Saudi royal Prince Turki Al Faisal shake hands. Credit: YouTube