Biden to make first visit as president to Israel and Saudi Arabia

JERUSALEM. When President Biden arrives in the Middle East this week on his first visit as an American head of state, he will find a region where alliances, priorities and relationships with the United States have changed significantly since then. his last official tripsix years ago.

His visit begins in Israel and the occupied West Bank, once at the center of US policy in the Middle East, and is expected to focus on Israeli politics. fast-growing ties with the Arab countries and the emerging Arab-Israeli military partnership to dealing with threats from Iran. Have ends trip in saudi arabiaGulf states say the West wants to produce more oil as a cure for the growing global energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine.

When Mr. Biden last visited Israel in 2016 as vice president, the country had diplomatic relations with just two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan. But now it is increasingly being introduced into the diplomatic ecosystem of the Middle East after several landmark deals brokered by the Trump administration, which normalized relations between Israel and three other Arab states: Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

In the West Bank, Mr. Biden will meet with Palestinian officials and may announce new economic support. But analysts and diplomats have said they do not expect major changes in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“U.S. involvement, let alone presidential involvement, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer a priority,” said Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York. “The United States has returned or taken control of the alliance, so the counter-Iranian coalition of Israel and the Persian Gulf is much more important for the United States than a solution to the conflict.”

mr. Biden and his Israeli hosts are expected to discuss strengthening the military coordination system between Israel, its new Arab allies and the US military. Unthinkable during Biden’s latest official visit, the system allows participating armies to report real-time air threats from Iran and its proxies and has already been used to take out several drones, according to Israeli officials.

There have even been hints of Saudi involvement in the military coordination, which currently has no overt relationship with Israel but shares its opposition to Iran.

“We are not going to announce the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia on this trip,” US Ambassador to Israel Thomas R. Nides said. recent podcast This was reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. But it will be the start of a process that “shows the importance of regional security,” he added.

Historically, Saudi Arabian officials have stated that they will avoid official relations with Israel until a Palestinian state is established. But the leading Saudis became increasingly critical the Palestinian leadership, and two commentators from Saudi Arabia expressed support for the normalization of relations with Israel in recent days.

The Israeli media also reported talks through unofficial channels to increase the number of Israeli aircraft allowed to fly over the Saudi Arabian mainland and obtain Israel’s blessing to change the role of international peacekeepers on two strategic small islands off Israel’s southern coast. which Egypt handed over to Saudi Arabia in 2017.

Israeli Minister Esavi Frey also said on Thursday that he had asked Saudi Arabia to allow direct flights from Israel to facilitate the Israeli Muslim minority’s pilgrimage to Mecca.

“There is a new affinity between Israel and the Persian Gulf,” said Itamar Rabinovich, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington. “The question is, can the United States try to take all these different bricks and build something new out of them?”

mr. Biden’s visit would also give the United States a chance to build bridges his disagreements with the Israeli government how to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

Since the departure a year ago of Benjamin Netanyahu, a former Israeli prime minister who had a rocky relationship with the Democratic Party, relations between Israel and the United States have improved. Both sides talk about warm relations, and there were no serious public quarrels.

This dynamic continues despite the recent collapse of the Israeli government and the appointment of an interim prime minister, Yair Lapid.

However, in private, Israel has opposed US-backed efforts to persuade Iran to end its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Biden’s arrival is partly an attempt to convince Israel that Washington has its back.

“No one is going to highlight Joe Biden’s commitment and love for the State of Israel,” Mr. Nides said in a podcast. “The security of Israel is of paramount importance to the United States.”

mr. However, Biden’s negotiations with the Palestinians promise to be more intense.

Last time Mr. Biden visited, the latest Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which were brokered by the last Democratic administration, recently broke down. A resumption of talks is seen as unlikely amid fading hopes for an end to Israeli occupation of the West Bank in the near future and declining American interest in seeking it.

US officials, including M. Nides, emphasize that the Biden administration believes in a two-state solution to the conflict. But the strengthening of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, divisions within the Palestinian leadership and Israeli disinterest in peace talks are making a Palestinian state an increasingly distant possibility, analysts say.

The Biden administration says it has restored about $500 million in funding for the Palestinians, including for the United Nations department that provides for Palestinian refugees. He also criticized actions, including settlement expansion, that make a two-state solution less viable.

But he also failed to undo several measures taken by the Trump administration that the Palestinians saw as undermining their aspirations.

The State Department has not officially canceled the Trump administration legitimacy decision about Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal. This was a change in US policy that had been in place for decades.

Following Israeli pressure, the United States did not reopen its consulate to Palestinians in Jerusalem, which had been closed under Trump. The Palestinian Legation in Washington, also closed under Mr. Trump. Trump, remains closed.

Palestinian anger flared up again this week after the United States concluded that Shirin Abu Akle, a prominent Palestinian American journalist, shot dead in the West Bank in Maymost likely he was killed by accident and said that it was would not push Israel conduct a criminal investigation against any Israeli soldier.

The Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank, accused Israel of deliberately killing Abu Akle, and a number of Palestinians, as well as the journalist’s family, saw the American statement as an attempt to shield Israel from accountability. Washington rejected this claim.

“Overall, from a Palestinian perspective, the administration has not done what it needs or what it needs to do to fix the damage,” said Ibrahim Dalalsha, a former US government and Palestinian leadership spokesman and director. Research Group Horizon Center in the West Bank.

mr. Biden’s visit is unlikely to significantly change this dynamic.

mr. Lapid, Israel’s prime minister, generally supports the concept of a Palestinian state, unlike his predecessor, Naftali Bennett. But Mr. Lapid is in his role only on a temporary basis, ahead of elections in the fall, and he has no mandate to change the situation.

However, Palestinian officials have said they hope the US administration can at least persuade Israel to implement less important projects, such as a 4G mobile network in Palestinian-run areas of the West Bank.

“Perhaps now is not the right time for the administration to push for a final status decision,” he said. Dalalsha said.

But, he added, “this administration has failed to convince the Israelis to take a meaningful set of confidence-building measures.”