Biden to bring tidings of progress on Saudi-Israel ties, senior diplomat hints

Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll tells reporters that normalization won’t happen overnight, but there will be some announcement on movement while US president is in Jeddah

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Joe Biden, right, stands in the Oval Office of the White House during a meeting between then-US president Barack Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, on September 4, 2015, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)
Joe Biden, right, stands in the Oval Office of the White House during a meeting between then-US president Barack Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia, on September 4, 2015, in Washington. (AP/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia will come with an announcement regarding efforts to bring the two countries’ ties out of the shadows, a senior Israeli diplomat hinted Monday, though he dampened hopes for a major breakthrough or surprise normalization a la the Abraham Accords.

“Any possible steps with Saudi [Arabia] will be probably different than what we’ve seen with the Accords,” Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll told journalists in Jerusalem ahead of Biden’s visit to Israel, slated to begin Wednesday. “I don’t think we’re going to wake up and find out we have a signed agreement with Saudi.”

Stressing that normalization with Riyadh would happen in stages, Roll said that Israel hopes Biden’s trip will come with some movement on Saudi-Israel ties.

“We will have to wait for President Biden’s visit to Saudi,” he said, indicating an announcement of some type would come at some point, though he could not say when and would not say what the nature of the possible announcement would be.

Biden is expected in Israel on Wednesday for a packed two-day visit that will also include a trip to the Palestinian Authority, followed by a visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday for a Saturday meeting with regional Mideast leaders as part of the GCC+3 summit.

Roll said he did not know of any Israeli official slated to join Biden’s flight to Saudi Arabia.

US President Joe Biden arrives at Andrews Air Force Base after delivering remarks in Cleveland about the American Recovery Act, Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Biden will be the second American president to fly from Israel directly to Saudi Arabia (after George W. Bush flew from Tel Aviv to Riyadh in May 2008; Donald Trump made the direct journey between the two countries in the opposite direction in 2017). In a Washington Post op-ed Saturday, Biden described the flight as a “small symbol” of the warming ties between Israel and the Arab world and “steps toward normalization.”

The US is working to finalize the transfer of a pair of Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi control as part of an agreement that would see Riyadh take a series of steps to normalize ties with Israel, an Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel last week. It’s hoping to shore up the transfer ahead of the trip.

Israel handed over control of the Tiran and Sanafir islands 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.

The normalization measures would include Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli flights to the Far East in addition to rolling out direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims, the Middle East diplomat said, confirming reporting in the Axios news site.

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)

“From Jerusalem, the [US] president’s plane will fly to Saudi Arabia, and he will carry with it a message of peace and hope from us,” said Prime Minister Yair Lapid on Sunday. “Israel reaches out to all the countries in the region and calls on them to build ties with us, to establish relations with us and to change history for the sake of our children.”

A recent Israeli report said that Israel intends to ask Biden to approve the delivery of an Israeli laser-based air defense system to Arab countries aligned against Iran, including Saudi Arabia.

Though the issue is sure to come up in all of Biden’s meetings with senior Israeli officials, Roll said that he does not expect the visit to revolve around the topic of Iran nuclear talks.

“It’s about maintaining the strategic relationship,” Roll said. “We don’t have a specific ask and we’re not trying to get something out of this visit.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll speaks at the Jerusalem Press Club, July 11, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

Roll said that despite recent talks Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Lapid have held with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Israel will not offer any new gestures to the Palestinians around Biden’s visit.

Biden is expected to visit the Augusta Victoria Hospital on East Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, according to an Israeli source familiar with the matter. It will be the first visit by a sitting US president to the largely Palestinian section of the capital outside of the Old City.

First Lady Jill Biden visited the same hospital in 2010 and announced the donation of new equipment for the oncology ward. The 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 have been seeking to join Biden on the visit, the Israeli source said.

The Biden administration will use the opportunity to announce a significant funding initiative for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, a senior Israeli official said, adding that the initiative has been pushed by US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides.

Roll said he was not concerned about the visit boosting Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem.

“We have a clear notion about this visit and the commitment of the Biden administration to Israel’s authority and to Israel’s sovereignty,” he said.

* Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Biden would be the first US president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia.

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