Three powerful US congressmen have sharply criticized Saudi Arabia following a report in Monday's Jerusalem Post that the desert kingdom is breaking its pledge to drop the Arab League boycott of Israel.
In November 2005, Saudi leaders promised Washington they would abandon the embargo on Israel after the Bush administration conditioned admission to the World Trade Organization on the move. A month later, Saudi Arabia was granted WTO membership.
The WTO, which promotes free trade, prohibits member states from engaging in discriminatory practices such as boycotts or embargoes.
Nonetheless, as first revealed in the Post, Saudi customs officials continue to block entry of goods manufactured in Israel and of items containing Israeli components.
"Saudi Arabia's boycott of Israel never should have existed in the first place and they should end it immediately," Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, ranking Republican on the Middle East Subcommittee of the US House of Representatives' Committee on Foreign Relations, told the Post. "It is a relic of wars waged decades ago and there is simply no moral or strategic reason there should be a boycott at all."
Pence also suggested that the continuing boycott could impact the US-Saudi relationship. "The Saudis clearly need to do a better job of living up to their commitments if they expect to have warm relations with the United States," he said.
Rep. Howard Berman of California, a Democrat on the House Middle East Subcommittee, was also highly critical of Riyadh, saying the Saudi government was not living up to its word.
"I strongly support efforts to end the trade boycott, which is clearly in violation of agreements the Saudis made during the WTO accession process," Berman told the Post. "The Saudis made a commitment to end the boycott to then-United States trade representative Robert Portman, and I expect Saudi Arabia to live up to that promise."
Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, a Democrat who sits on the Subcommittee on Trade of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the Saudis "must immediately end the boycott."
"I continue to be disappointed in both the Saudi position and the Bush administration's reluctance to push a supposedly close ally of the United States on this," he said. "I will continue to talk with the US trade representative to make sure that our government is putting as much pressure on the Saudis to move forward and end the boycott."
"The Bush administration," Crowley said, "has done nowhere near enough in convincing the Saudi government to end its participation in an illegal boycott aimed at hurting our No. 1 ally in the Middle East."
"I hope that Congress will act to ensure that the boycott on Israel is ended for once and all," he said.
An official from the US Trade Representative's Office said, "At the time of its accession to the WTO, Saudi Arabia did not invoke the nonapplication provisions of the WTO Agreement with respect to any member, and therefore has taken on all WTO rights and obligations, including most-favored-nation treatment, with respect to all members, including Israel."
"In our view," the official said, "continuing the primary boycott of Israel would not be consistent with these commitments."
While acknowledging that "there have been conflicting signals from Saudi officials on their understanding of their MFN [most-favored-nation] commitment," the official said Washington was pressing Riyadh on the issue.
"The United States government takes every available opportunity to vigorously raise the boycott with Saudi authorities to remind them of their commitment and our expectation that they honor this commitment" said the official.