JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Joe Biden departed Friday afternoon on the first-ever direct flight by a US president from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, hours after Riyadh announced that it would begin allowing Israeli planes to use its airspace, as part of an agreement brokered by Washington that is slated to be announced later in the weekend.
He left Ben Gurion Airport after a brief farewell huddle with Prime Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog and other dignitaries at the foot of the steps to Air Force One.
In brief remarks immediately after Biden’s departure, Lapid said cryptically that Biden’s Wednesday-to-Friday trip to Israel also included “achievements that will take years before we can talk about them.”
He called the Saudi decision to open its airspace to Israeli flights a “first official step” in a larger diplomatic process to normalization with the Jewish state. “I thank the Saudi leadership for the opening of Saudi airspace.”
The day-and-a-half Saudi portion of Biden’s first Middle East trip as president, which followed two days in Israel and the West Bank, has earned a lot of focus due to the apparent about-face it represents in the administration’s policy toward Riyadh, after initially pledging to take a much harder line due to the kingdom’s human rights record.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led Washington to shuffle its foreign policy priorities, including encouraging Saudi Arabia to pump more oil in order to to help lower gas prices in the US and decrease European dependence on Russian crude.
Biden, after initial hesitance to embrace the Abraham Accords normalization agreements that the Trump administration brokered between Israel and several Arab states in 2020, has gone all in on the initiative, describing the advancement of Israel’s integration in the region as a key goal for the Mideast tour.
The efforts bore fruit on Thursday when Saudi Arabia announced that it would be allowing all civilian planes, including Israeli ones, to use its airspace.
— Ambassador Tom Nides (@USAmbIsrael) July 15, 2022
The move is part of an agreement Biden will announce in Saudi Arabia that will see Egypt transfer control of a pair of Red Sea islands to Riyadh, a Middle East diplomat told The Times of Israel on Thursday. Tiran and Sanafir were previously held by Israel, which agreed to transfer them to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace treaty while allowing a multinational observer force to remain and ensuring Jerusalem’s freedom of transport around the islands.
Accordingly, Israel’s sign-off was needed for the Egyptian-to-Saudi island transfer to go through, and the Biden administration leveraged the green light needed to push Riyadh to take steps toward normalization with the Jewish state.
The agreement will also allow for direct charter flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims, the Mideast diplomat said. Riyadh has held off on formally establishing ties with Israel, saying it won’t do so without a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Saudi ties with the Palestinians have cooled in recent years, due in no small part to a frosty relationship between Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Riyadh reportedly refused several requests by Abbas’s office for him to visit the Gulf kingdom before Biden’s trip in an ostensible last-ditch effort to convince Saudi Arabia not to move toward normalization with Israel. Riyadh sufficed with a phone call between Abbas and the more traditionally pro-Palestinian, 86-year-old King Salman.
The 36-year-old crown prince is seen as more removed from the Palestinian cause, going so far as to say in March that Israel could be a “potential ally.”
For now, however, King Salman appears to hold veto power on full normalization with Israel.
Still, Israel lobbied aggressively for Biden to visit Saudi Arabia, identifying the opportunity to make progress toward normalization while also viewing repaired US-Saudi ties as a national interest in order to more effectively combat Iran.
For many, it has been a difficult pill to swallow, given Biden’s pledge during his campaign to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over what the CIA found was the crown prince’s authorization of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Biden insisted on Thursday in Israel that his position on Khashoggi’s murder has not changed and that he will raise the issue of human rights with the Saudis.
The president is scheduled to hold a bilateral meeting with King Salman and his team shortly after arriving in Jeddah and then will sit down with the crown prince and his aides, in a highly anticipated gathering where US media has placed much attention on whether Biden will shake bin Salman’s hand.
Israeli ministers were told that the president would only be doing fist bumps due to COVID precautions, but Biden broke protocol and was seen shaking hands throughout his stay in Israel, making it more difficult to describe a decision not to do so with MBS as anything short of a snub.
On Saturday, Biden will participate in an expanded summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council known as the GCC+3, which will bring together the leaders of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE along with Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.
He will subsequently hold separate bilateral meetings with the leaders of Iraq, Egypt and the UAE before flying back to the US on Saturday evening.
Addressing Biden’s planned Saudi trip on Thursday, Prime Minister Yair Lapid asked the president to send a “message of peace” from Jerusalem.
“Our hand is outstretched for peace. We are ready to share our technology and experience, ready for our people to meet and learn about one another, ready for our scientists to collaborate and our businesses to cooperate,” he said during a press conference alongside Biden.