While much of his foreign travel in his first 18 months in office has focused on reversing the foreign policy of former President Donald Trump and shoring up battered alliances, Biden on his first trip to the Middle East will embrace the Trump-era Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries and pursue an expansion of growing Arab-Israeli security and economic ties.
In the lead-up to the trip, US officials have been working to deepen Israeli-Arab security coordination and broker agreements that will inch Israel and Saudi Arabia — which do not have diplomatic relations — closer to normalization.
People familiar with the matter said Saudi Arabia is expected to announce this week that it will allow all commercial flights to and from Israel to use its airspace and allow Israel’s Muslim minority to take charter flights directly to Saudi Arabia to participate in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Biden will also fly directly to Saudi Arabia from Israel, a moment that he called a “small symbol of the budding relations” between the two countries.
Senior Biden administration officials said full Saudi-Israel normalization remains out of reach, though covert coordination between the two countries has expanded.
“It’s changed the security situation in the Middle East,” a senior US official said of the Abraham Accords signed in late 2020. “Our job is to go deeper with the countries that have signed up and to go wider if we can.”
The Biden administration’s focus on expanding normalization agreements between Israel and Arab countries has frustrated Palestinian officials who would prefer the US focus on reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But US officials say their focus on Arab-Israeli normalization is a recognition of realities in the region: The momentum for growing Arab-Israeli ties coupled with dead-end political conditions in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Two senior administration officials said the administration would like to see movement toward Israeli-Palestinian peace but said the White House has decided not to pursue the kind of high-level shuttle diplomacy that previous administrations have chased because it would likely fail.
“We’re very careful about setting objectives, particularly in the Middle East. Where administrations have gotten themselves in deep trouble is by promising the Moon and not being able to deliver and wasting time and resources and investment,” a senior administration official said. “Had we launched a peace process, there would have been nobody at the table.”
“If the parties are ready to talk, we are always going to be right there to help, but we are not going to come out with some top-down mandated plan and create expectations that can’t be met,” the official said.
Attempting to make incremental progress on Israeli-Palestinian relations
US officials have instead focused on making incremental progress to improve living conditions for Palestinians and restoring relations with the Palestinian Authority.
“The Palestinian relationship that we walked into had been totally severed. We restored relations with the Palestinians, we turned back on funding for the Palestinians — almost $500 million — and we have looked for opportunities to improve the lives of Palestinians wherever we could,” the senior administration official said.
Biden is expected to visit a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem this week and announce $100 million in new funding for those facilities, US officials said. The Biden administration has also been working with Israel on an aid package to bolster the Palestinian Authority, which governs Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank.
Palestinian officials are still calling on Biden to do more to reverse Trump administration actions, including making good on his pledge to reopen a US consulate in Jerusalem to deal with Palestinians. That promise has gone unfulfilled amid disapproval from Israel.
Palestinian officials are also urging the US to do more to hold Israel accountable for the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May, which the US State Department said last week “likely” resulted from gunfire from Israel Defense Forces positions during an IDF-led raid in the West Bank.
The State Department caveated their conclusion, however, by saying that a forensic analysis “could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed” Abu Akleh. The statement angered Abu Akleh’s family, who wrote a letter to Biden saying his administration failed to conduct a thorough probe into her killing.
The Israeli government was angry with the statement, too, according to a senior Israeli official, because it appeared to contradict itself. On the one hand it said the analysis was inconclusive, and on the other concluding the bullet likely came from the IDF. “We do have a problem with the way it was presented,” the official said.
Even amid that dispute, US officials have been working to ensure that the trip is not marred by an increase in tensions between Israel and Palestinians, encouraging dialogue between the two sides that led to the first call between an Israeli Prime Minister and Palestinian Authority President in five years last week, in which Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas congratulated new Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on his ascension and the two leaders expressed their wishes for peace.
“We’re encouraging them (Israelis and Palestinians) to have conversations and encouraging them to do things that keep things calm,” a senior US official said.
State Department officials also requested last month that Israel tamp down on any military operations and settlement activity in the West Bank at least while Biden is in town, a second senior US official said.
The White House is particularly keen on avoiding a repeat of Biden’s visit to Israel as vice president in 2010, when Israel’s Interior Ministry approved a settlement expansion in east Jerusalem while Biden was in the country trying to build support for new talks with the Palestinians. Biden condemned the announcement and White House officials were so furious at the time that they urged Biden to fly home, officials told CNN.
Asked whether Israel will honor US requests not to engage in settlement announcements around Biden’s trip, the senior Israeli official would say only that Israel is doing “everything possible” to make the visit a success.
‘A policy earthquake’
The Biden administration’s focus on the Abraham Accords more broadly, though, also reflects a recognition that a fundamental shift in regional dynamics has begun.
“In some ways, it’s a policy earthquake,” said David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy who worked on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process during the Obama administration. “I think there’s a fundamental paradigm shift from which there’s no return.”
Ahead of Biden’s trip, Israeli officials have made no secret of their eagerness to advance toward normalization with Saudi Arabi and their hope that Biden can help them make progress on that front.
“Saudi Arabia, the way we see it, is that it is a very important country in the Middle East and beyond. In expanding Israeli normalization with the Arab world, we would also like to see Saudi Arabia as part of that expansion,” a senior Israeli official told CNN.
To that end, Israel has pushed for Biden to travel to Saudi Arabia and mend ties with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman — whom the US accused in a declassified CIA report of having approved the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — believing that expanding the Abraham Accords would be more difficult without strengthened US-Saudi relations, despite Biden’s tough domestic political situation around Saudi relations. The Crown Prince has denied involvement in the murder.
When Biden travels to Jeddah on Friday, he will attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus three — Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. He will also hold a bilateral meeting with Saudi King Salman and his advisers, including MBS. Some US officials told CNN they are hoping that MBS and Biden have some one-on-one time as part of the meeting, though the choreography will likely be driven by the Saudi hosts.
Biden is likely to bring up Khashoggi’s murder, US officials told CNN, and the administration is hoping MBS will acknowledge some responsibility for the crime. While oil production is not expected to be the main topic of the meeting, US officials do expect the topic to arise — there is hope that the Kingdom will commit to increasing production in the weeks following the meeting.
The Yemen conflict will be a central piece of the conversation as well. US officials are hoping that the Saudis agree to extend the truce between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, for six more months.
While US officials are not expecting the Saudis to throw any major curve balls during the events, they acknowledge that it is possible especially because the Saudis are hosting. When National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met last year with MBS at a beach-front property along the coast of the Red Sea, MBS was dressed in shorts, while Sullivan and other US officials wore suits. It created a bizarre juxtaposition, adding another layer of strain to an already tense meeting, officials said.
The Biden administration is not overly anxious about the meetings, though, because of the extensive diplomatic groundwork that has already been laid over the last eight months by Biden’s national security advisers. And the US has already been central to deepening Israeli-Arab security coordination following the key decision last year to move military coordination with Israel under US Central Command, putting Israel under the same umbrella as Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. Earlier this year, Israel and Saudi Arabia both participated in joint naval exercises for the first time, with the US and Oman.
More could be in the offing. Biden will arrive in the region amid discussions of establishing a regional air defense framework that would include Israel and Arab countries to warn of Iranian attacks.
“There is an effort (housed) under CENTCOM to develop regional security cooperation among all the actors and one element is the integrated air defense initiative. It is a goal, but we are not there yet and there is a long way to go,” a senior Israeli official said.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi on Sunday night ahead of Biden’s visit. The call comes amid rising tensions with Iran and as CENTCOM is reviewing options for how to deter and, if necessary, use force against Iran. For the last several years, options for potential use of force against Iran have centered around a deterrence strategy in which the US would most likely only strike Iran if it, or militias it backs, were responsible for attacks on US interests or killing of American troops and citizens. A more complex scenario would be if there is solid intelligence Iran has a nuclear weapon and Israel was set on attacking inside Iran.
The CENTCOM update is not expected to fundamentally change US military policy, even though at least four defense officials say there is a broad view that Israel is heavily signaling the Biden administration it wants US military support for an Israeli strike inside Iran if that were to happen.
Looking past Trump
While Biden immediately embraced the Abraham Accords — which established diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — during the 2020 campaign, there were early signs in his administration of skittishness to fully embracing the accord.
During the first months of Biden’s presidency, State Department officials, including spokesman Ned Price, referred to the Accords as “normalization agreements” and resisted using “Abraham Accords.”
One senior US official said there were some in the administration who “didn’t want to give Trump credit” by using the term, but said the administration has “surpassed that.” By the one-year anniversary of the signing, Price recorded a video hailing the accords by their name.
A senior administration official said “from the White House, there was never any hesitancy” in embracing the accords.
The Biden administration has also sought to deepen Israel’s emerging relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco — which inked its own normalization agreement in December 2020 — by dispatching Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Negev Summit, which convened the countries’ foreign ministers in Israel in March.
While in Israel, Biden is also set to participate in a virtual summit with the leaders of Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates to discuss global food security to demonstrate the deepening partnership.
Overlap between Biden and Trump’s Middle East policies begin and end with efforts to normalize ties between Israel and the Arab world. And like his previous foreign trips, Biden’s trip to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia will underscore the significant US policy shift underway.
“Our policy could not be any more different,” a senior administration official said. “Just because we support the Abraham Accords does not mean we have the same Middle East policy.”
Biden laid out the many ways in which he has changed the course of US policy in the Middle East in a Washington Post op-ed Saturday ahead of his trip, pointing to reversing the Trump administration’s “blank-check policy” toward Saudi Arabia, reentering Iran nuclear negotiations alongside European allies and taking other military and diplomatic steps that he says have made the region more stable.
“The Middle East I’ll be visiting is more stable and secure than the one my administration inherited 18 months ago,” Biden wrote. “In my first weeks as president, our intelligence and military experts warned that the region was dangerously pressurized. It needed urgent and intensive diplomacy.”