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Israel Awaits Saudi Approval To Participate In Chess Championship
Muslim pilgrims pray near the Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy Muslim city of Mecca. (Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel Awaits Saudi Approval To Participate In Chess Championship

It would mark the first-ever public Israeli presence in the Muslim kingdom

The Israeli chess team is preparing to participate in the World Chess Championship in the Saudi capital of Riyadh next month. The seven contestants are waiting for Saudi approval of their visa applications to enter the kingdom, a move that would ultimately broadcast to the world Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of Israel as a valid and recognized participant.

If Saudi Arabia approves the visas, however, it will place itself in an awkward position regarding normalization with Israel. On the other hand, if the Saudis reject the Israeli delegation, it might lose the right to host further matches and the International Chess Federation confirmed it would not pay the tournament prizes, estimated to be millions of dollars.

The Israeli participation in the championship is based on an invitation received from the World Chess Federation.

When reached by The Media Line, Ahmad Al-Hbilani from the Saudi Chess Federation refused to comment on the issue.

Lior Eisenberg, spokesperson for the Israel Chess Federation, expressed to The Media Line how important it is for Israelis to participate and play against Arab countries in such big championships. “If Saudi Arabia agrees to host the Israelis, it will be a very big thing; allowing the Israelis to enter the kingdom publicly for the first time,” he said. “Our policy is to develop this game in Israel and to use it as a bridge to play abroad, but we have to wait and see.”

Eisenberg further noted that both “Israel and Iran are now in the same situation, waiting for the Saudi approval of our visas.”

Based on International Chess Federation policies, Saudi Arabia must comply with the regulations as a host and allow all qualified chess players, from anywhere in the world, to take part in the tournament, irrespective of politics.

Jibreel A-Rjoub, the head the Palestinian Authority Olympic committee, likewise declined to address the matter when contacted by The Media Line.

However, a Palestinian chess champion, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed a willingness to play against an Israeli opponent at any time; this, while taking into account the political situation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. “We are not in a normal situation with Israel so I can’t act as if it is,” he clarified to The Media Line.

Muslim and Arab countries often boycott Israeli competitors because of their foreign policies regarding Israel.

Last year a Saudi Arabian judo athlete, Joud Fahmy, refused to participate in her first-round match at the Summer Olympics in Rio, allegedly to avoid having to compete against an Israeli competitor, Gili Cohen, in the second round.  However, the Saudi Olympic attributed Fahmy’s withdrawal to “injuries while training,” according to a tweet posted on its official account.

In October, an Israeli team competed in the Abu Dhabi Grand Slam judo tournament, but was listed as representing the International Judo Federation. The Israeli team was required to partake without any identifying symbols and was informed before the tournament that there would be no acknowledgement of its country.

Accordingly, when an Israeli judoka won a gold medal at the tournament the Israeli flag was not raised nor the national anthem played in his honor.

Lately, though, cooperation between Israel and the Arab world has become more public. The Israeli army’s Chief-of-Staff Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was interviewed by Elaph, a Saudi newspaper, in which he named Iran as the “largest threat to the region.” The basis for the Israeli-Saudi ties, despite the lack of any diplomatic relations between the two nations, is encapsulated by Eisenkot’s explanation that, “Iran seeks to take control of the Middle East, creating a Shi’ite crescent from Lebanon to Iran and then from the [Persian] Gulf to the Red Sea.”

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia agree that Iran must be prevented from doing so.

Earlier this week, Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of energy, confirmed what had been widely suspected but until now undisclosed. He revealed that there have been numerous contacts between the Saudi Kingdom and Israel.

Speaking to Israel’s Army Radio, Steinitz blamed Arab countries for insisting on secrecy, saying that Israel is not ashamed of the relationship.

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