Biden trip to Jerusalem and Riyadh - what’s he trying to achieve?

What does the US president hope to accomplish in his diplomatic trip to the Middle East?

 US PRESIDENT Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One for a flight to Los Angeles this week. If Biden is coming to the Mideast to criticize and slow Israeli building in Judea and Samaria and greater Jerusalem, pull back, says the writer. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One for a flight to Los Angeles this week. If Biden is coming to the Mideast to criticize and slow Israeli building in Judea and Samaria and greater Jerusalem, pull back, says the writer.

WASHINGTON – Despite Israeli media reports on Sunday night that US President Joe Biden’s planned visit to Israel and the Middle East had been rescheduled to July 14, there has been no confirmation from Washington.

According to Reuters, citing a source familiar with the planning, the White House is planning to announce the trip this week.

On Sunday, Biden didn’t mention Israel but said that he hasn’t decided yet if he’ll travel to Saudi Arabia next month. Speaking to reporters before Air Force One departed from Los Angeles, Biden also addressed a question about whether there are commitments he is waiting for from the Saudis or about negotiations on peace talks, before announcing his trip.

“No,” said Biden. “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,” he continued. “It has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy prices.”

What will he try to achieve in this visit?

The United States is in a years-long process of downsizing its involvement in the Middle East, said Natan Sachs, the director of the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.

“It still has a large military presence and still expends resources on the region, but it is looking to partner more extensively with countries in the region on security matters. This trip would be part of that effort, with the Biden administration visibly joining in an Arab-Israeli partnership for defense, especially against Iranian and Iranian-backed unmanned platforms,” he said. “It’s a significant shift in the Biden posture and another sign of a dramatically different Middle East.”

Michael Koplow, chief policy officer at the Israel Policy Forum, said Biden’s visit is about US-Saudi ties first and foremost, “and I don’t expect any big American initiatives with respect to Israel or to Israeli-Palestinian issues.”

“He is trying to avoid the mistake that president Obama made in skipping Israel on his first visit to the region, and thus the Israel component seems to me more of a box-checking exercise,” Koplow said. “The reference to Israeli security is likely about the Saudi-Egyptian agreement on transferring the islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, which requires Israeli approval, and is viewed as another step toward Israeli-Saudi normalization and toward a broader regional security architecture in which Israel is integrated. Assuming that the JCPOA is not resurrected – increasingly the likely scenario – the US wants greater agreement and cooperation on dealing with Iran going forward, and this is a piece of that puzzle.”

MARK DUBOWITZ, chief executive at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said that Biden should be trying to achieve closer coordination with Israel on a pressure campaign against Iran, expanding efforts toward greater Saudi-Israeli normalization, “and sending a clear message to the Palestinian leadership that they can be part of the expanding process of normalization or it will pass them by.”

“The major obstacle to Saudi-Israeli normalization is in Washington not in Riyadh or Jerusalem,” Dubowitz said. 

“Biden has the opportunity to repair the damage in the US-Saudi relationship and to lay out a plan for greater regional military and intelligence integration against Iran and greater political and commercial integration between Israel and the Arab world. He has the opportunity to be remembered as the president who brought the most important Muslim country into the Abraham Accords.”

Mark Dubowitz

According to reports in Israeli media, Biden’s visit is expected to also include a visit to east Jerusalem. The plans follow Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf’s visit to Israel and the West Bank, and as the State Department signaled on Twitter that it upgraded its Jerusalem office to the Palestinians, and changed its name to the “US Office of Palestinian Affairs in Jerusalem.”

“The separation of the Palestinian unit from the embassy is a partial step, well short of reopening the consulate general in Jerusalem, which Biden and Blinken both promised the Palestinians,” said Sachs.

“It’s a measure meant to blunt some of the worst criticism from the Left about going forward with the regional rapprochement without any major push on the Palestinian front.”

According to Koplow, “Biden wants to signal that he is continuing to repair relations with the Palestinians despite US moves falling short of Palestinian expectations.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still relatively low on his list of priorities, and that is unlikely to change in the near future, but Biden wants to demonstrate that he is not ignoring Palestinian concerns and is taking a different tack than president Trump did,” he said. “It’s more about the optics of a new US approach than it is about a big substantive shift or a shift in priorities.”

Dubowitz said that Biden should “avoid walking into the same trap on the Palestinian issue, which normally entails State Department efforts like the recent changes to its Jerusalem office to reward the Palestinian leadership without making reciprocal demands or holding them accountable.”

“Biden should be telling [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas: You can join normalization efforts and lead your people into greater prosperity and security or you can continue to obstruct, incite and deflect,” said Dubowitz. “That will guarantee only more misery and violence, the collapse of the PA and the rise of Hamas on the West Bank.”