Administration

Five things to watch as Biden heads to the Middle East

President Biden will land in Israel on Wednesday for his first presidential visit to the Middle East, seeking to reassert U.S. influence in the region. 

The trip has already been marked by controversy due to Biden’s plans to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS. Biden will spend a few days in Israel before traveling to Saudi Arabia.

Threats from Iran and domestic concerns about energy production are expected to be dominant issues on the trip. Here are five things to watch.

Biden faces pressure on human rights

In deciding to visit Saudi Arabia and meet with MBS, Biden has faced accusations of backtracking on his campaign pledge to make the Gulf state a “pariah” after the 2018 murder of U.S.-based Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday that Biden would advocate for human rights issues during the trip, but wouldn’t address questions of whether Biden planned to raise Khashoggi’s killing with the Saudi crown prince. 

The White House has defended the trip as advancing America’s interests, and Biden is expected to use the meeting in part to address global energy disruptions caused by Russia’s war in Ukraine. 

Sullivan also insisted on Monday that Biden had ended the Trump administration’s “blank-check policy” with respect to Saudi Arabia, pointing to the release of the U.S. intelligence report assessing MBS approved Khashoggi’s murder. 

The family of slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh also sought a meeting with Biden on his trip. In a scathing letter to the president last week, the family accused the Biden administration of helping “whitewash” what they said was an “extrajudicial killing” by Israeli forces.

The State Department said earlier this month that a third-party investigation showed bullets from Israeli Defense Forces likely killed Abu Akleh, but that there was “no reason” to believe it was intentional. 

Four Democratic senators sent a letter Tuesday saying the probe did “not meet any plausible definition of the ‘independent’ investigation” and said it did not provide transparency.

The family of Malki Roth, an American-Israeli girl killed in a 2001 Palestinian suicide bombing, have also asked for a meeting with Biden in Jerusalem. And the president has faced calls from the families of victims in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its alleged role in the attacks. 

Will there be progress on energy?

In Saudi Arabia, Biden will attend a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council — a group that includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Saudi Arabia. 

Biden is expected to discuss oil production with the countries, which also include several members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC+. 

“We will convey our general view … that we believe that there needs to be adequate supply on the global market to protect the global economy and to protect the American consumer at the pump,” Sullivan said Monday. 

Experts say that Biden can use the meeting to improve coordination with Gulf countries on energy security and address questions about plans for a price cap on Russian oil, though it’s unlikely to result in an immediate commitment by Saudi Arabia to increase oil production.

“I think progress probably could look like some sort of joint projects around both renewable energy and maybe some more sort of positive language around Saudis being involved in stabilizing the market, greater coordination,” said Rachel Ziemba, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. 

The White House has been careful not to raise expectations too high. Oil and gas prices have been declining in the U.S. after the average price for a gallon of gas topped $5 for the first time last month. 

Iran looms large

Threats posed by Iran are expected to be a top focus of Biden’s meetings with both Israeli officials and Arab states. 

The Biden administration has sought a return to the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, which former President Trump withdrew from in 2018, but those conversations have stalled in recent weeks. Sullivan said Monday that a deal remains “on the table” and declined to set a deadline for an agreement. 

Experts say that a return to a deal is still possible, though diminishing.

Israel, meanwhile, opposes the 2015 agreement. Speaking to reporters during a briefing Tuesday, a senior Israeli official said it is grateful that the U.S. has left the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list, but said that “time has run out for the JCPOA,” the formal name for the deal. 

But the Israeli official stressed close collaboration with the administration on Iran. 

The U.S. and Israel plan to announce a Jerusalem Declaration that, while serving as a blueprint for the bilateral relationship over the next few years, will include committing “both countries to using all elements of its national power against Iranian nuclear threat,” the official said.  

Also part of that collaboration is the increasingly open relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and efforts to pursue a regional air defense network. 

Israel, Saudi take steps toward normalization

Biden will become the first sitting U.S. president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia later this week, a moment that administration officials have pointed to as a sign of warming ties between the two nations. 

The Biden administration has said it is working to facilitate normalization between Israel and Arab countries, a continuation of work under the Trump administration on the so-called “Abraham Accords.” 

There have been murmurs about some steps that could be finalized on Biden’s trip to move Israel and Saudi Arabia towards more normal relations. The countries, for example, could agree to allow commercial flights from Israel to fly over Saudi Arabia. 

Administration officials have been tightlipped about any details of new developments.

“Any normalization of any kind would be a long process,” Sullivan said Monday. “But looking for progress and momentum in that direction is certainly something we are focused on as we head off to the Middle East.”

Biden balances Israel-Palestine conflict

There’s little chance Biden will be able to move Israeli officials to permit the U.S. to reopen its consulate in Jerusalem, shuttered by Trump, that offered a direct link between Palestinians and Washington. 

Short of a direct engagement between Israelis and Palestinians on peace negotiations, the trip is likely to provide an opportunity to advance stalled benefits for Palestinians, such as access to 4G mobile networks and increased freedom of movement. 

Israel’s government will be in campaign mode for the next several months after its governing coalition dissolved late last month, which experts say could further constrain conversations about Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians.

Biden’s desire to stay out of the campaign process, and the uncertainty over which party and individuals will be leading the Israeli government in the months to come, could influence how much progress can be made during the president’s trip this week.

“I think that weighs on the president’s trip now. Things that may have been possible or discussed may not be possible in a political environment like this,” said Rich Goldberg, who served for a year as director for countering Iranian weapons of mass destruction for the White House National Security Council.

Brett Samuels contributed.

Tags iran nuclear deal israel-palestine conflict Jake Sullivan Joe Biden Mohammed bin Salman President Joe Biden US-Israel relations US-Saudi relations

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