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Biden heads to region with hopes for Israeli-Saudi ties looming over packed schedule

Israeli officials focused on possible breakthrough with Riyadh, though itinerary for two days in Jerusalem and Bethlehem indicates Washington has other priorities as well

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US President Joe Biden boards Air Force One for a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. (AP/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden boards Air Force One for a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. (AP/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden departed Washington for the Middle East on Tuesday night as speculation peaked in Israel that he would deliver a breakthrough in ties between the Jewish state and one of the region’s most prominent Muslim countries.

Biden was set to touch down at Ben-Gurion airport on Wednesday afternoon local time. There he will kick off a four-day trip to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia aimed at further solidifying bilateral ties with Jerusalem, providing assurances to the Palestinians that his administration is still proactively committed to the two-state solution, and coaxing the Gulf kingdom to increase its oil production and coordinate with regional partners on Iran.

In Israel, the leadup to the trip has sparked feverish excitement over the potential for bringing its long-hushed correspondences with Saudi Arabia a bit more out into the open.

On Tuesday, a senior Israeli official briefing reporters ahead of Biden’s arrival said that there would soon be an announcement regarding the “immediate materialization” of a normalization process between Israel and Saudi Arabia, without providing details.

Biden officials have been far more cautious, acknowledging that Israeli-Saudi ties would be a focus of the trip while insisting that normalization would be a “long process.”

Washington is in the midst of brokering talks to transfer a pair of Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia in a deal that would see Riyadh take small steps toward formal diplomatic ties with Jerusalem, a Middle East diplomat told The Times of Israel last week.

Israel handed over control of the islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace agreement, but the sides agreed to demilitarize the islands and to allow the presence of a multinational observer force. Israel is now seeking similar assurances from Saudi Arabia in order to sign off on the deal, but Riyadh has been hesitant to put the commitment in writing, the Middle East diplomat said.

If inked, the agreement would see Saudi Arabia allow Israeli flights to the Far East to use its airspace in addition to rolling out direct flights between the two countries for Muslim pilgrims to Mecca and Medina, the diplomat said.

This photo taken on January 14, 2014, through the window of an airplane, shows the Red Sea’s Tiran (foreground) and the Sanafir (background) islands in the Strait of Tiran between Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Saudi Arabia. (Stringer/AFP)

The White House hopes to finalize the agreement in time for Biden’s arrival in Jeddah on Friday, though the same diplomat on Tuesday put the likelihood of that happening at 50 percent.

The deal has faced significant hurdles due to the fact that Riyadh doesn’t have formal ties with Israel, which wants to safeguard its freedom of navigation around the Tiran Straits, where Tiran and Sanafir islands are located.

Riyadh has also been hesitant to put details of the agreement in writing, much to Israel’s discomfort, the diplomat said.

The efforts to broker a deal with Saudi Arabia are also awkward for the US administration; Biden had spoken of turning the country into a “pariah”
before a global energy crisis and other factors made it nearly impossible for him to blackball Riyadh.

Now he is turning to the kingdom for a foreign policy win to reverse floundering approval ratings back home.

A worker prepares to hang US national flag on July 12, 2022, in Jerusalem, ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel tomorrow. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Also looming over Biden’s travels will be his administration’s struggle to rejuvenate the Iran nuclear deal that was reached by Barack Obama in 2015 and abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018. Negotiations stalled last month, and Iran is believed to be closer than ever to having the ability to build a nuclear weapon. Failure to reach a diplomatic solution could increase the chance of conflict in an already combustible neighborhood.

“He’s going to face a region that’s long on problems with very few solutions,” said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Beam of light

The prospects of regional cooperation against Iran will also be on display — quite literally — when Biden lands in Israel, scheduled for 3:20 p.m. local time (8:20 a.m. EDT).

Following a brief welcoming ceremony at the airport, where he will be greeted by Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Biden will get a tour of Israel’s security systems from Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

The systems, which will be transported to Ben Gurion Airport for the president’s convenience, will include an Iron Dome missile defense battery, in a nod to US efforts to grant Israel additional funding for the system after last year’s Gaza war.

US President Joe Biden walks behind members of the U.S. Marine Corps as he arrives at the Congressional Picnic on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

On Monday, Gantz said he would use Biden’s visit to bring the president up to speed on progress toward building an integrated air defense alliance with Israel and its Arab allies against Iran.

The pact, dubbed by Gantz, “MEAD — Middle East Air Defense,” is meant to connect air defense systems to combat Iran’s increasing use of drones and missiles in the Middle East.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that Israel had agreed to sell UAVs and anti-drone tech to Bahrain, a potential member of the alliance.

A senior US official said last week that the initiative is still in the works but that Biden will take a look at some of the technologies Israel exports to some of its regional allies in a “nod” to such cooperation.

An Iron Dome anti-rocket battery seen in the city of Haifa, on August 30, 2013. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Biden’s tour will include the Iron Beam laser rocket defense system, which is designed to work in tandem with systems like Iron Dome and shoot down smaller projectiles. During the tour, the president will announce his authorization for US defense officials and contractors to begin talks with Israeli counterparts about purchasing Iron Beam, a senior US official told The Times of Israel last week.

The welcoming ceremony at the airport will be shorter than previous presidential welcomes, with the Foreign Ministry telling ministers that the 79-year-old president won’t be shaking hands or taking selfies with a long line of cabinet members due to the tight schedule, COVID concerns and the hot weather. Biden is expected to deliver brief remarks from the tarmac.

Following the weapons tour, the president will depart at 4:50 p.m. to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem for a brief tour before retiring for the evening at the King David Hotel.

Talks, talks and talks

Biden and Lapid are slated to hold talks late Thursday morning and will participate in a high-level meeting of the new I2U2 forum with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United Arab Emirates President Mohamed bin Zayed.

The leaders will discuss “the food security crisis and other areas of cooperation across hemispheres where the UAE and Israel serve as important innovation hubs,” a senior Biden official said last month.

Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who met Biden twice during his year as premier, will take part in a portion of the talks.

(From left to right): Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan at a press conference in Washington, DC on October 13, 2021. (GPO)

Lapid and Biden will then hold a 1:30 p.m. press conference at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where they will deliver prepared remarks and take several questions.

The president is slated to meet Israeli counterpart Isaac Herzog at his official residence on Thursday afternoon. After brief talks, Biden will be presented with a medal of honor and deliver brief remarks, according to an official schedule.

Before leaving the President’s Residence, Biden will hold a brief meeting with Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House has only allotted 15 minutes for the exchange; the two have had a rocky history, particularly during the Obama administration when Biden was vice president.

Last year, Netanyahu posted a video in which he mocked Biden and regurgitated a debunked claim that the American leader fell asleep during an earlier meeting with Bennett at the White House.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, looks on as U.S Vice President Joe Biden signs the guest book at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, Tuesday, March 9, 2010. Biden says there is a “moment of opportunity” for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. (AP Photo/Debbie Hill, Pool)

The Netanyahu meeting was added to the schedule last month in order to avoid the perception that the US was picking sides ahead of the November 1 Israeli election.

The president will finish the day by attending the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Jewish Olympic games at Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium and meeting with members of the American delegation at 7:45 p.m.

Help for the healers

On Friday morning, Biden will head to the Augusta Victoria Hospital on East Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, where he will announce a $100 million funding package for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network that treats Palestinians, an Israeli and a US official said. It will be the first visit by a sitting US president to the largely Palestinian section of the capital outside of the Old City.

The 10:30 a.m. stop is seen as a nod to Palestinians, who view the area as the capital of their future state. Perhaps for that reason, Israeli officials pushed to join Biden on the visit, the Israeli source said, adding that they were ultimately rebuffed by the US.

Dr. Jill Biden, wife of then-US vice president Joseph Biden, seen with Palestinian patients during a visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, on March 10, 2010. (AP/Menahem Kahana, Pool)

The hospital network is not formally run by the PA and works with Israeli HMOs, but it also plays a key role in the Palestinian health care system. Much of the network’s operating budget comes from treating Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, for which the PA foots the bill.

In addition to the new US funding, Biden will be announcing similar donations to the hospital network from several Gulf states, a Middle Eastern diplomat said.

Biden will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem at 11:30 a.m. There, he will likely face tough questions over last week’s announcement by the US that it did not find Israel to have intentionally killed Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh in clashes that broke out during an IDF raid of Jenin on May 11.

The Biden administration has sought to restore ties with the Palestinians after they were essentially frozen during the Trump administration, but efforts have foundered. Israel’s vehement objections which have delayed the reopening of a US consulate serving the Palestinians in Jerusalem has remained a central sticking point.

Still, Biden will announce alongside Abbas a package of steps aimed at strengthening the PA, a senior US official said. Among the US gestures is one related to the Palestinian economy that Ramallah has long requested, a senior US official said last week, declining to elaborate further.

Israel’s Defense Ministry preempted the US Tuesday by announcing a series of goodwill gestures to the PA, including legalizing the status of 5,500 undocumented Palestinians and foreigners living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Biden will head back to Ben Gurion Airport for a 3:30 p.m. flight to Jeddah, though he may make a brief stop on the way at Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity, if time permits.

Palestinians wait to receive their national IDs at the civil affairs office in Gaza City, on January 5, 2022. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

‘Major statement’

The flight to Jeddah will make Biden the second US president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia; George W Bush did so in 2008; Donald Trump flew in the opposite direction in 2017. There, he will participate in a regional summit known as the GCC+3 with Gulf Cooperation Council members Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates along with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

Biden will make a “major statement” on his vision for the Middle East region during the summit, said Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser.

In addition to discussing Iran and Israel’s integration in the region, US officials said Biden’s meetings would focus on bolstering the ceasefire between warring parties in Yemen. And Biden will seek Saudi Arabia’s help on bringing oil prices down

The White House insists that the trip to Saudi Arabia does not mean it is forgoing its foreign policy emphasis on human rights and that Biden will merely be “seeing” Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, rather than taking a one-on-one meeting with the man the CIA determined ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Even if Biden’s visit goes smoothly, there may not be any immediate relief at the pump because oil production targets are governed by an agreement reached among the members of OPEC+, a cartel that includes Saudi Arabia and Russia. And while the current agreement expires in September, concern about a potential worldwide recession could make oil producers wary about pumping more.

Biden made only a glancing reference to working with Saudi Arabia to “help stabilize oil markets” when he defended his plan to visit the kingdom in an op-ed in the Washington Post, the same newspaper that used to publish Khashoggi’s writing.

He promised to continue raising human rights issues, and he said he wants “to reorient — but not rupture” the US relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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