Jan 13, 2021 - World

Israel to push Biden to take it easy on Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt

Illustration of hand with an Israeli button on the cuff, holding an Egyptian, UAE and Saudi Arabian flag.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Israel plans to lobby the incoming Biden administration to avoid confrontations over human rights and other contentious issues with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt, senior Israeli defense officials tell me.

Why it matters: President-elect Biden has promised to put human rights and democracy at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy, and he skipped over all three when placing phone calls to the leaders of 17 countries after his election victory. He was particularly critical of Saudi Arabia during the campaign over the war in Yemen and human rights issues.

  • Israel sees its security and intelligence relationships with the three countries as central to its strategy to counter Iran and an important pillar in regional security.
  • Now, Israel fears that Biden will not only seek a deal with Iran, but also cool relations with America's Arab partners.

Driving the news: Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt all welcomed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s controversial decision this week to designate Yemen's Houthi rebels as a terror organization.

  • Israel hasn’t taken any position on that decision — which some Democrats are already lobbying Biden to reverse — but has been placing new emphasis on the situation in Yemen in recent weeks.
  • That's due in part to threats from the Iran-backed Houthis on Israeli shipping in the Red Sea, but mainly because of the implications of further Iranian entrenchment in the country for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Israeli officials say.
  • What to watch: The Israelis know Biden will have a very different policy on Yemen than Trump, particularly when it comes to the Saudi role in the war. But they plan to encourage the new administration to make sure its policy shifts don't deepen Iranian influence or jeopardize regional cooperation on other issues.

Behind the scenes: The Israeli defense officials tell me they plan to make the case to the Biden administration that the region has changed over the last four years, with a new regional alignment forming as Israel strengthens its ties with Arab countries.

  • Israel hopes the new administration will prioritize that process over its concerns about the war in Yemen or human rights abuses.
  • On the one hand: The officials say Israel has encouraged Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take steps on human rights issues in order to improve the atmosphere for dialogue with the Biden administration.
  • On the other: They also plan to warn Biden's team that a crisis in relations with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt could push those countries away from the U.S. and toward Russia and China.

What they're saying: “We were very close to losing Egypt several years ago and our message to the Biden administration will be: 'Take it slow, dramatic changes took place, don’t come with predispositions and don’t harm relations with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE,'" a senior Israeli official told me.

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