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Biden says Israel’s national security part of reason for Saudi trip

President dismisses idea that his Riyadh visit is related to energy issues; Israeli official says stops in Jerusalem, Bethlehem will be on July 14, 15, but US says dates not final

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

President Joe Biden speaks in the Oval Office of the White House, May 31, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
President Joe Biden speaks in the Oval Office of the White House, May 31, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

US President Joe Biden’s said Sunday his expected visit to Saudi Arabia will also address Israel’s national security, as an Israeli official told The Times of Israel that stops in Israel and the West Bank on that same trip have been tentatively set for July 14 and 15.

“The commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy. It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m going. And it has to do with national security for them — for Israelis,” Biden told reporters before boarding Air Force One.

“I have a program — anyway. It has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy piece,” he added.

It was not clear what Biden was referring to regarding Israeli’s national security.

The White House has yet to finalize dates for the Mideast tour, which was originally expected to take place in late June but was delayed to July due to what a US official said were scheduling issues.

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said, “We continue to plan for a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, have no further trip details to confirm but will announce as soon as we do.”

“The trip comes in the context of a significant agenda with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the other countries of the Middle East,” the spokesperson continued. “That agenda is focused on delivering results for the American people as well as ending wars and leading through diplomacy to bring stability to the Middle East region.”

Much of the trip is still being planned, but it will include the traditional bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Israel, and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, the Israeli official said. The official added that the latter sit-down is slated to take place in Bethlehem and that Biden is also expected to visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and East Jerusalem.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2021. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP, File)

But the White House appeared to be paying more attention to Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia, which will be the same week as the Israel visit.

The Israeli official said the trip delay was because the White House was still debating certain aspects of the Saudi stopover, which is politically sensitive, as Biden had said as part of his presidential campaign that he would treat the kingdom as a “pariah” state over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Shortly after taking office, Biden released the intelligence report that said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman had authorized Khashoggi’s killing.

Biden also scaled back US support for a Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen amid revulsion over civilian casualties.

NBC News, which first reported the delay, said the Biden administration is putting together plans to hold a summit in July with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is made up of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar.

While many analysts have framed the trip around the administration’s desire to press Riyadh to increase oil production, given surging energy prices worldwide, Biden appeared to downplay the connection on Sunday.

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

A US delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf is currently in the region for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials, ahead of Biden’s visit.

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