Biden says visit to Mideast in July will focus on ‘national security’ for Israelis

The trip is being couched as a presidential effort to help “bring stability to the Middle East.”

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

U.S. President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia has been scheduled for several days in mid-July, American and Israeli officials have confirmed.

According to a spokesperson for the National Security Council quoted in Axios, regional stability is a prime reason for Biden’s first visit to the region since becoming president a year and a half ago.

“The trip comes in the context of a significant agenda with Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the other countries of the Middle East. That agenda is focused on delivering results for the American people as well as ending wars and leading through diplomacy to bring stability to the Middle East region,” the spokesperson said.

Biden is expected to meet on July 14 with the top echelon of Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog. Officials told Ynet that he will also visit the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem.

The next day Biden will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem and visit the Church of the Nativity. A proposed visit to eastern Jerusalem, which stirred controversy in Israel when it was suggested before the June visit that was ultimately postponed, may still be on the table as well.

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Biden will then go to Saudi Arabia, where the tentative plan is for him to meet one-on-one with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Riyadh.

Such a meeting would be a sharp reversal for Biden, who had entered office demanding a reassessment of the U.S.-Saudi relationship over human rights concerns. He also called the de facto leader of the kingdom a “pariah” for his alleged order to murder a prominent Saudi critic, journalist Jamal Kashoggi, in 2018.

Khashoggi was lured into his country’s embassy in Istanbul, Turkey and killed by a hit squad that included members of the prince’s own protective detail, according to U.S. intelligence.

The prince, known as MBS, denied any role in the embarrassing affair, calling it a “heinous crime,” but he took responsibility for it “as a leader in Saudi Arabia” in a 2019 interview with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” program.

‘Much larger issues than energy’

On Sunday, the president told reporters in Washington that the reason for his trip is that there is going to be “a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia” that “has to do with national security for them — for Israelis…. It has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy piece.”

Biden provided no details about the Israeli angle. Previous reports have suggested that the White House is trying to arrange a deal, whereby Jerusalem would agree to an Egyptian return to the Saudis of two islands in the strategic mouth of the Straits of Tiran, which leads into the Red Sea and Israel’s southern tip. According to the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords, Jerusalem must give its consent to such a move.

Considering Riyadh’s desire for the islands’ return, this could be another step toward the normalization of relations between the countries, which Israel craves as an important sign of its acceptance in the Arab Middle East.

According to Axios, the provisional plan is that after he lands in the Kingdom, Biden will also join MBS at a summit with the leaders of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar and the UAE.

Despite Biden’s denial, it is probable that energy will be on the agenda at some point.

Gas prices have soared in the U.S. as a result of burgeoning sanctions on Russian oil over the country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The president has been under pressure to raise local oil production, which he is resisting, due in part to environmental concerns.

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Instead, he asked the OPEC+ countries, led by Saudi Arabia, to increase their output, a request that was denied at first.

Earlier this month, the oil-producing nations agreed to a 50% increase over the summer months. The breakthrough was seen as a sign of a thawing relationship between Riyadh and Washington.

The White House has yet to give official confirmation of the trip dates and itinerary.