Biden lobbies for regional security alliance with Israel, Arab states

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, however, said on Saturday that his country’s “requirements for peace” with Israel are “a two-state settlement with a Palestinian state."

 U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at King Abdulaziz International Airport, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS)
U.S. President Joe Biden arrives at King Abdulaziz International Airport, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia will allow Israeli commercial flights over its territory, but stressed, during a weekend in which US President Joe Biden visited Jeddah, that it will not normalize relations with the Jewish state until a two-state solution is reached with the Palestinians.

The Saudi Civil Aviation Authority said on Friday that it would open its airspace to all air carriers, paving the way for more overflights to and from Israel.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid called the move “the first official step of normalization with Saudi Arabia.”

“We will continue to work on this as cautiously as needed, for the Israeli economy, for the security of Israel and for Israel’s citizens,” Lapid stated on Friday, seeing Biden off at the end of his visit to Israel.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called the overflights a continuation of “the foundations of normalization with Saudi Arabia” that his government laid when Riyadh permitted Israeli commercial flights to fly over its airspace en route to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Requirements for peace

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, however, said on Saturday that his country’s “requirements for peace” with Israel are “a two-state settlement with a Palestinian state in the occupied territories with east Jerusalem as its capital.”

“Saudi Arabia supports the Arab Peace Initiative. In fact, we offered it. We have made it clear that peace comes at the end of this process, not at the beginning of it,” al-Jubeir told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

“Saudi Arabia supports the Arab Peace Initiative. In fact, we offered it. We have made it clear that peace comes at the end of this process, not at the beginning of it.”


Al-Jubeir said that signing the Abraham Accords was a “sovereign decision” by the countries that did so, and expressed hope that they will influence Israel’s policies regarding the Palestinians.

A joint communique by the US and Saudi Arabia also “underscored their enduring commitment to a two-state solution.”

Open skies

Saudi Arabia opened its skies to Israelis in exchange for Jerusalem’s agreement to remove the international peacekeeping force from Tiran and Sanafir, two islands in the Straits of Tiran.

The peacekeepers’ presence was part of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, but Egypt agreed in recent years to return control of the islands to Saudi Arabia. Egypt and Israel agreed on alternate security agreements on Egyptian soil, several kilometers away.

At the same time, no announcement was made regarding direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrimages to Mecca, which Israel has sought since 2018 and hoped to achieve during Biden’s trip.

In a statement, Biden welcomed “related steps under discussion to include direct flights from Israel to Jeddah for next year’s Hajj on approved carriers.”

Biden told an Arab Summit on Saturday that the United States would remain firmly committed to its allies in the Middle East and was “not going anywhere” as he lobbied for a regional security alliance that would integrate Israel.In his first trip to the Middle East as president, which began with a visit to Israel, Biden presented his vision and strategy for America’s engagement in the Middle East.

Shared concerns on Iran

Biden also sought to use the gathering in Jeddah to integrate Israel as part of a new axis largely driven by shared concerns over Iran.

“We believe there’s great value in including as many of the capabilities in this region as possible and certainly Israel has significant air and missile defense capabilities, as they need to. But we’re having these discussions bilaterally with these nations,” a senior administration official told reporters.

Biden has focused on the planned summit with six Gulf states and Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, while downplaying a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, after the two bumped fists when Biden arrived at the meeting.

That encounter drew criticism in the United States over human rights abuses, in light of bin Salman’s involvement in the killing of columnist and regime critic Jamal Khashoggi.

“The United States is invested in building a positive future in the region, in partnership with all of you, and the United States is not going anywhere,” Biden said.

Gulf states, which have refused to side with the West against Russia over Ukraine, are seeking a concrete commitment from the United States to strategic ties that have been strained over perceived US disengagement from the region.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have been frustrated by US conditions on arms sales and at their exclusion from indirect US-Iran talks on reviving a 2015 nuclear pact they see as flawed for not tackling regional concerns about Tehran’s missile program and behavior.

Israel, which shares their concerns about Iran, encouraged Biden’s trip to the kingdom, hoping it would foster a warming between Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of a wider Arab rapprochement after the UAE and Bahrain forged ties with Israel in US-brokered pacts that received Riyadh’s blessings.

A plan to connect air defense systems could be a hard sell for Arab states that do not have ties with Israel and balk at being part of an alliance seen as against Iran, which has built a strong network of proxies around the region including in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen.

The sides also announced some additional steps related to extending a truce in Yemen and a new bilateral framework for cooperation on 5G and 6G.

Though Biden needs the help of OPEC giant Saudi Arabia at a time of high crude prices, the US statement made only a general reference to “further steps that we anticipate over the coming weeks that will help stabilize markets considerably.”

Biden had said he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” on the global stage over the 2018 murder of Khashoggi by Saudi agents, but ultimately decided US interests dictated a recalibration, not a rupture, in relations with the world’s top oil exporter.

The US leader said he had raised the Khashoggi killing with the Saudi crown prince on Friday and that to be silent on the issue of human rights is “inconsistent with who we are and who I am.”

The crown prince told Biden that Saudi Arabia has acted to prevent a repeat of mistakes such as the killing of Khashoggi but that the United States had made similar mistakes, including in Iraq, a Saudi official said.

In a statement sent to Reuters about the two leaders’ conversation on Friday, the official said the kingdom’s de facto ruler had asserted that trying to impose certain values by force on other countries could backfire.

Biden also met with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain in Jeddah. Biden “commended Bahrain’s expanded ties with Israel through the Abraham Accords and the Negev process,” the White House said. “The two leaders discussed mutual efforts to foster regional integration and deepen security cooperation.”

In a separate meeting in Jeddah, Biden and King Abdullah of Jordan “reaffirmed their commitment to continue working for a just, lasting and  comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of the two-state solution.”

The two leaders “stressed the importance of fostering political and economic horizons through confidence-building measures that would set the ground for meaningful Palestinian-Israeli negotiations,” the White House said. “They also emphasized the importance of including the Palestinians in regional cooperation projects.”

Speaking about the situation in Jerusalem, the two leaders “stressed the necessity of upholding the historic status quo in Jerusalem’s holy sites, and the president underlined the key role of the Hashemite Custodianship in that regard.”

The king also expressed appreciation for US support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, said the White House.

In a meeting with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in Jeddah, Biden expressed appreciation for bin Zayed’s “personal leadership in breaking down barriers and forging diplomatic relations with Israel, as well as deepening cooperation with other countries in the region,” the White House said.

“The leaders discussed the US role in helping to forge new economic, trade, and people-to-people relations among Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, as well as in deepening the ties among these states and Egypt and Jordan through new frameworks of cooperation.”

According to the readout, both leaders noted the important launch of the water and solar energy arrangement between Israel and Jordan with Emirati and American backing and investment as a model for future partnerships in the region.

During his meeting with Biden, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi discussed food security and disruptions to energy supplies, the Egyptian presidency said.

Relations between Egypt and the United States were uneasy in the first months of the Biden presidency amid differences on human rights, before  Egypt’s efforts to broker a ceasefire in Gaza in May 2021 prompted re-engagement.

“The two leaders stressed that a two-state solution remains the only viable path to achieve a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to realize a secure, prosperous, and dignified future for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” the White House said in a statement after the meeting.

“President Biden expressed support for Egypt’s vital leadership and historic role in promoting peace and an end to the conflict, thereby expanding the circle of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors and globally, as well as preserving sustainable calm between Israelis and Palestinians.