President Joe Biden will soon make his first presidential visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia, the White House announced Tuesday — a trip that analysts say could move along the delicate process of normalizing Israel’s relations with its neighbors in a complex region that holds great strategic importance for Washington.
The four-day mid-July trip begins in Israel, where Biden will meet with Israeli leaders. He will also conduct talks in the West Bank with the Palestinian Authority to convey his support for a two-state solution between the fractious parties.
From Israel he heads to Jeddah, the Saudi city seen as a gateway to two of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina. Israel and Saudi Arabia have no diplomatic ties and this will be the first direct flight by an American president from Israel to an Arab state that does not recognize the country, following former President Donald Trump’s 2017 historic flight from Riyadh to Tel Aviv.
In Jeddah, he will meet leaders of that oil-rich kingdom — not just his direct counterpart, the aging, ailing king — but also the crown prince, who is seen as the key driver of policy and de facto leader of one of the world’s last absolute monarchies.
“The president is going to see over a dozen leaders on this trip including King Salman and the leadership from our Saudi hosts for the [Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan] Summit,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. “Yes, we can expect the president to see the crown prince as well.”
The Biden meetings could have some impact, said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute.
“I think the main thing is to see how President Biden and his team try to stabilize the relationship between the United States and Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia, and then broaden its diplomatic outreach with other key Arab countries,” he told VOA.
Washington has been engaged in quiet diplomacy to expand the Abraham Accords, the Trump administration agreement for Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. Ultimately, Israel and Saudi Arabia are on a path toward normalization, but it is unlikely to be announced during Biden’s trip, Katulis said, adding that Saudis require progress on peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians before considering normalization.
“I think that path is probably quite long. And I'd be surprised if we see some major breakthrough on that front,” he added.
With neither side showing signs of agreeing to concessions, prospects for peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians remain dim.
While Biden has reversed some of Trump’s policies seen as hostile to the Palestinians, including restoring financial aid and resuming diplomatic contacts, he has maintained U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and kept the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. Since coming to office, Biden has not exerted pressure to halt Israeli settlement expansions, despite his criticism of the policy during his time as vice president in the Obama administration.
Biden’s meetings with the Saudis are also especially fraught, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, because of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged involvement in the grisly killing of one of his biggest critics, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As a presidential candidate, Biden pledged to make Saudi leadership “pay the price, and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are” over Khashoggi’s 2018 killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“But that's not the totality of the U.S. government's relationship with Saudi Arabia,” Alterman told VOA via Zoom. “We have relations with governments that do horrific things to millions of their citizens,” he said, adding that while he was “distraught by the horrific murder and butchering of Jamal Khashoggi,” whom Alterman knew personally, as a government, “we have to think more broadly about how that fits into a broader context.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., a senior member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, urged Biden to insist on accountability for those responsible for Khashoggi’s murder, as well as “the killing of Portland’s Fallon Smart and other victims of Saudi citizens who have fled U.S. justice.” Fifteen-year-old Smart was killed in 2016 by 20-year-old student Abdulahraman Sameer Noorah, a Saudi national who then fled to Saudi Arabia despite having his passport confiscated.
“The United States cannot value Saudi oil more highly than the blood of Fallon Smart and Jamal Khashoggi,” Wyden said. “America does not become more secure by legitimizing authoritarians like Mohammed bin Salman, who has protected perpetrators of violence against Americans and manipulated oil markets to gouge American consumers.”
The administration said Biden will discuss a number of other issues with Saudi leaders, including the U.N.-mediated truce in Yemen, “means for expanding regional economic and security cooperation, including new and promising infrastructure and climate initiatives, as well as deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights, and ensuring global energy and food security.”
“There's so much on the U.S.-Saudi agenda,” Alterman said. “I think what the president is going to try to do on the trip, is to genuinely broaden the aperture and lay the foundation for a broad cooperative relationship with Saudi Arabia — the Saudis want a broad cooperative relationship with the United States.”
But that will depend on careful diplomacy and skilled statesmanship on all sides. Last week, VOA asked Biden whether he would move to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia — one embodying the soul of Judaism, the other, the soul of Islam. The two monotheistic faiths have been entangled in conflict in the region for hundreds of years.
Biden chuckled and replied, “We’ll see.”
Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.