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White House announces official Presidential visit to the Middle East

What happened: The White House Press Secretary yesterday announced President Joe Biden will visit the Middle East from July 13-16.

  • According to the statement, the trip will “reinforce the United States’ iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity”.
  • The trip will begin in Israel, where the President will meet with political and security leaders to discuss the country’s security and “its increasing integration into the greater region”.
  • “The President will also visit the West Bank to consult with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and to reiterate his strong support for a two-state solution, with equal measures of security, freedom, and opportunity for the Palestinian people.”
  • The President will then travel to Saudi Arabia, where he will be hosted by King Salman. While there he will also attend a Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan (GCC+3).
  • Prime Minister Bennett said the trip will “deepen the special relationship and the strategic partnership between the two countries, as well as strengthen the US commitment to the security and stability of Israel and the region”.
  • Bennett added that the President will also “reveal the steps that are being taken by the US to integrate Israel into the Middle East and increase the prosperity of the entire region”.

On the regional agenda: The Iranian threat, both in terms of Iran’s nuclear programme and its advancements in precision missiles and drones are of great concern to both Israel and Sunni Gulf states.

  • There is growing speculation that Israel’s increased integration in the region involves some form of regional defence pact that could involve deploying Israeli radars and anti-missile systems to protect the wider region against Iranian threats of advanced missiles and drones.
  • Defence Minister Benny Gantz alluded to this earlier this week when he said: “In the face of Iranian belligerence … what is needed is not just cooperation, but also a regional force build-up, with American leadership, which would strengthen all parties involved.”
  • Another aspect of ‘regional integration’ could also come in the form of incremental progress towards Israel-Saudi Arabia normalisation. The latest speculation suggests President Biden could announce that Saudi Arabia agrees to allow Israeli over flights over its territory to the far east. At present only flights destined for UAE and Bahrain, (implying tacit Saudi approval for the Abraham Accords) are allowed. As part of the deal, Israel will approve the transfer of two strategically placed uninhabited islands of Tiran and Sanafir at the opening of the Red Sea. The island are being transferred from Egypt to Saudi Arabia for substantial renumeration. Israel’s consent is necessary due to the Island’s inclusion under the terms of the 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty.
  • According to the White House, other issues on the agenda during the trip include supporting the UN-mediated truce in Yemen, climate initiatives, advancing human rights, and ensuring global energy and food security.
  • The visit to Saudi Arabia and a meeting with Crown Prince MBS in particular is a change in the Biden administrations approach, following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey by Saudi operatives in 2018. Realpolitik; the price of oil, inflation and limiting the influence of Russia and China, are thought to have led to change in the US position.
  • The Palestinians have several requests for the President, including: removing the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from the US list of terrorist entities, to allow the PLO to reopen their office in Washington and reopen the American consulate for east Jerusalem.

Israeli political context: By the time the visit comes around, the government of change may have collapsed.

  • On Monday MK Nir Orbach from Yamina announced that he is no longer voting with the coalition. He has conditioned his return on the government passing the West Bank civil law bill the end of the month.
  • Orbach’s decision means the coalition is stuck in stalemate unable to advance any legislation. However, his decision buys the coalition another week to try and regain control of the left-wing rebels.
  • The US is thought to favour the coalition of change but has denied having a vested interest in Israel’s internal affairs.
  • It is not guaranteed that Bennett will be prime minister when the visit takes place. If the government falls due to any MK from Yamina or New Hope, Alternate Prime Minister Lapid will automatically take over. If right-wing coalition and opposition forces cooperate to form an alternative coalition, Benjamin Netanyahu could return instead.

Looking ahead:  This will be Biden’s first visit to the Middle East as president, though he has been many times before, beginning over 50 years ago as a young senator.

  • President Biden will arrive in Israel on Wednesday evening 13 July.  He will be welcomed at Ben Gurion Airport and then will have dinner with the prime minister.
  • The next day, he will meet with President Herzog. He will visit Yad Vashem and an IDF base, where he will observe an Iron Dome battery and discuss the development of the laser system to defend against missiles and drones.
  • Biden will then visit the West Bank and meet with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.
  • While in Israel, Biden will also hold a virtual summit of a new diplomatic ‘Quad’, including the US, Israel, India and the UAE.
  • After Israel, Biden will travel to Saudi Arabia, where he will attend a summit with the leaders of Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

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