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On eve of Biden trip, White House says Israel-Saudi ties will be a ‘long process’

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan stresses integrating Israel into region will be a focus of Biden’s visit, but plays down hopes for speedy normalization with Riyadh

Saudi special forces troops salute in front of a screen displaying images Saudi King Salman, right, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after a military parade in preparation for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)
Saudi special forces troops salute in front of a screen displaying images Saudi King Salman, right, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after a military parade in preparation for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, July 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

The White House said on Monday that advancing ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia would be a focus of US President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to the Middle East, but that normalization between the two countries would be a “long process.”

Biden is set to land at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday for a visit that will include Israel and the West Bank, before leaving for Saudi Arabia on Friday. Israeli officials have expressed hope for progress with Saudi Arabia during the trip.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan played down hopes for a breakthrough in a briefing to reporters at the White House on Monday.

“With respect to Israel and Saudi Arabia, I’m not going to get ahead of very intensive work that will be done in the course of this trip,” Sullivan said. “Normalization of any kind would be a long process.”

“Looking for progress and momentum in that direction is certainly something we’re focused on as we head off to the Middle East,” he said.

Biden will become the first US president to fly from Israel directly to Saudi Arabia. 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.”

Sullivan said the flight was “itself a meaningful step and an unusual step.”

“It shows the kind of promise that greater integration could hold,” he said.

Sullivan also said that Iran was set to send armed drones to Russia for its war in Ukraine during the briefing. Iran’s nuclear program and other activities in the region will be discussed during Biden’s trip.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a press briefing at the White House, July 11, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Sullivan said there was no deadline for Iran rejoining the nuclear deal with world powers. He said the agreement was “on the table” for Iran, and pledged more sanctions and other punitive measures if Tehran does not accept a deal. Negotiations have been stalled for months.

Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said Monday that normalization with Riyadh would happen in stages, unlike the surprise announcement for the Abraham Accords that saw Israel forge ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020. Roll expressed hope that Biden’s trip will come with some progress, though.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said last week that there may be a possible “breakthrough” during Biden’s visit in the effort to build a regional military alliance against Iran that would include Saudi Arabia.

Gantz had recently spoken of US-led efforts to establish a regional air defense pact between Israel and its Arab allies in the region, against the threat of Iranian drones and missiles. The countries in such an alliance would reportedly include United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

Gantz said Monday that Israel would bring Biden up to speed on the effort during the president’s visit.

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