The appearance of a Saudi diplomat is "unprecedented," said William Daroff, Washington office director for the United Jewish Communities, which organized the reception.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up contacts with Israel and pro-Israel Jewish groups in the USA. The outreach has the Bush administration's blessing: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said six Gulf states and Egypt, Jordan and Israel are a new alignment of moderates to oppose extremists backed by Iran and Syria. She has said an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would weaken militants such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Contacts have intensified as part of a strategy meant to undercut extremists and build momentum for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, said Jamal Kashoggi, an aide to Saudi Prince Turki.
Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "What really concerns pro-U.S. Arab states is that Iran is setting the political agenda in the region."
Saudi and Gulf Arab contacts with Israelis and American Jews go back more than a decade but have never been so public. Arab countries have treated Israel as a pariah since it gained independence in 1948. Most Arab countries ban travel to Israel, investment there and other commercial ties with the Jewish state and routinely refer to it as the "Zionist entity."
Only three of 21 Arab nations recognize Israel: Egypt, Jordan and Mauritania. A 2002 peace plan put forward by Saudi Arabia offers diplomatic relations with the other 18 Arab states if Israel withdraws to the borders it had in 1967 meaning giving up the West Bank and the Golan Heights and cedes land for a new Palestinian state.
Among the other recent Arab-Jewish contacts:
Saudi national security adviser Bandar bin Sultan met privately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in Jordan in September, said Daniel Ayalon, Israel's former ambassador to Washington. He said it was the highest-level Saudi-Israeli meeting he'd ever heard of.
The United Arab Emirates has invited a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The conference, a 51-member umbrella group, is a strong supporter of Israel.
Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres met the emir of Qatar in late January after taking part in a debate with Arab students there. It was the highest-level Israeli meeting with the Gulf nation since 1996, when Peres visited as prime minister.