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Biden says he’ll aim to ‘deepen Israel’s integration in region’ during visit

US president says trip not about Saudi Arabia, even though Riyadh will be hosting summit he’ll attend; makes no mention of Palestinian issue

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

US President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference on the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid, Thursday, June 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference on the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid, Thursday, June 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

US President Joe Biden said Thursday that one of the purposes of his upcoming trip to the Middle East is to “deepen Israel’s integration in the region.”

“I think we’re going to be able to do [that], which is good — good for peace and good for Israeli security,” he said during a press conference on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Spain.

“That’s why Israeli leaders have come out so strongly for my going to Saudi [Arabia],” Biden added, publicly revealing the lobbying by Jerusalem for him to visit Jeddah, amid apprehension from some in his party over the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record.

Biden will travel to Israel and the West Bank and July 13 and 14 before continuing to Saudi Arabia, where he will participate for two days in the GCC+3 annual summit of regional leaders from UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar, in addition to Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan.

Israel has been eager to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia, viewing the Gulf kingdom’s acceptance as critical for broader integration in the region. As such, it has pressed administration officials to ease up on Riyadh despite Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s perceived role in the killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Jerusalem has taken a similar approach in its lobbying for improved relations between the US and Egypt despite Cairo’s own checkered human rights record.

Biden did not elaborate on how the trip will lead to Israel’s integration into the region, but Axios reported Wednesday that the US is on the verge of successfully brokering an agreement that will see a pair of Red Sea islands transferred from Egypt to Saudi Arabia in a deal that will see Riyadh move toward normalizing ties with Israel, whose approval is required for the accord to go through.

Biden insisted Thursday that the Israel visit was “really important” in its own right and would “affirm the unbreakable bond Israel and the United States have.”

The president notably made no mention of the Palestinians in his answer to a reporter’s question about the trip, a further hint regarding its scope.

While there has been some speculation in Israel that Biden would hold off on visiting, given the political upheaval of the past month, the White House has been adamant from the get-go that such issues are not part of its calculus. The US had expected Naftali Bennett to be the premier when Biden arrives in two weeks but is moving forward with its planning as Yair Lapid readies to replace him as prime minister on Friday.

Biden’s decision to visit Saudi Arabia has raised eyebrows, given his pledge during the campaign to treat Riyadh as a “pariah” over its human rights record. But with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic’s recoil sparking all-time highs at the pump, the president has altered his approach in order to ensure better cooperation from a key Mideast ally.

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as they meet in the Oval Office of the White House, Friday, August 27, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Still, he tried to insist that the decision to go to Jeddah was merely circumstantial. “It’s in Saudi Arabia, but it’s not about Saudi Arabia,” he said.

Biden also said that he won’t be seeking to press Riyadh to increase its oil production in order to compensate for rising gas prices in the US. “I’ve indicated to them that I thought they should be increasing oil production, generically — not to the Saudis particularly,” he said.

Biden confirmed that he’ll be “seeing” Saudi Crown Muhammad bin Salman but only as part of the larger GCC+3 meeting. He will instead be meeting one-on-one with Saudi King Salman.

“The overall piece here is we’re also going to try to reduce the deaths in the war that’s occurring in Yemen,” he said. “There’s a whole range of things that go well beyond anything having to do with Saudi [Arabia] in particular.

“They have real concerns about what’s going on in Iran and other places in terms of their security as well,” Biden added.

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