Biden says Israel trip not yet finalized, confirms Riyadh stop in the cards

President says he’s trying to end ‘senseless wars between Israel and Arab nations,’ but no ‘direct plans’ yet for travel and too early to discuss meeting crown prince

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

US President Joe Biden speaks about the May jobs report, Friday, June 3, 2022, in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
US President Joe Biden speaks about the May jobs report, Friday, June 3, 2022, in Rehoboth Beach, Del. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

US President Joe Biden said Friday that an upcoming trip to Israel and the region had not yet been finalized, but confirmed that he may pay a highly charged visit to Saudi Arabia while in the neighborhood, as the administration looks to shore up its Mideast alliances.

Speculation over the upcoming trip to the Middle East, expected in mid-June, has intensified in recent days, with some reports linking the journey to US-brokered talks between Egypt and Saudi Arabia that could include steps toward normalization with Israel.

“I’m not sure whether I’m going,” Biden responded when asked at a press conference on the economy about whether he’d be traveling to Saudi Arabia.

The White House has been pushing Riyadh to increase oil production in order to lower gas prices that have spiked due to US sanctions targeting Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

“I have no direct plans at the moment, but let me tell you that I have been engaged in trying to work with how we can bring more stability and peace in the Middle East,” he said. “There is a possibility that I would be going to meet with both the Israelis and some Arab countries at the time, including… Saudi Arabia would be included in that if I did go, but I have no direct plans at the moment.”

Biden told Prime Minister Naftali Bennett during their phone call in late April that he planned to visit Israel in the coming months, but no official date has been announced.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel last week that the trip will likely take place the week of June 19 and include a visit by the president to East Jerusalem. A US official confirmed Biden will also travel to the West Bank and meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

But the more consequential part of the tour appears slated to take place in Riyadh, as Washington seeks to mend ties with the Gulf kingdom Biden vowed during his election campaign to treat as a “pariah” over its human rights record.

Asked whether he still held that view, Biden indicated that he was willing to compromise for peace.

“Look, I’m not going to change my view on human rights, but as president of the United States my job is to bring peace if I can, and that’s what I’m going to try and do,” he said.

The Biden administration has reportedly been brokering talks between Saudi Arabia and Egypt aimed at finalizing an agreement to transfer the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Cairo to Riyadh.

The islands feature prominently in the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and the transfer would require a degree of Israeli support. As a result, the US and Israel are reportedly pushing Riyadh to take a series of small steps toward full normalization with Jerusalem in exchange for Israel’s compliance with the island transfer.

He added that it was too early to publicly discuss meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman if he travels to Riyadh.

“Look, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here,” he said.

“What I want to do is see to it that we diminish the likelihood… of the senseless wars between Israel and the Arab nations, and that’s what I’m focused on,” he added.

Biden did not mention the Palestinians in his remarks.

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