Steps toward Saudi-Israel normalization expected around Biden visit
Steps toward normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are expected to be announced over the weekend after President Biden meets in Jeddah with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, three Israeli officials told Axios.
The big picture: The White House wants to discuss a road map for normalization between the countries during Biden's visit to the region.
Between the lines: Biden's visit, which will reset his administration's relations with the Gulf kingdom, is seen as diplomatically and politically sensitive.
- Biden once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" and relations have been strained over a number of issues, including the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. U.S. intelligence says MBS is responsible for Khashoggi's murder — an allegation Saudi Arabia denies.
State of play: White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed in a briefing with reporters earlier this week that the Biden administration is working on the issue, but he refused to go into details.
- Sullivan said Biden's visit to the region will be the beginning to a long process when it comes to Saudi-Israeli normalization.
- A senior Israeli official said final decisions on any normalization steps will made only after the meeting between Biden and Saudi officials, including MBS, and will likely be announced on Saturday either by the Saudis or by Biden with Saudi permission.
Driving the news: Diplomats and lawyers from the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been working for weeks on a complex choreography of agreements, understandings and letters that will allow a deal on the transfer of two strategic Red Sea islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to be inked around Biden's visit to the Middle East.
- The deal centers on the Saudi demand that the U.S.-led multinational force of observers stationed on the islands leave, as well as the Israeli demand that Saudi Arabia commits to maintaining freedom of navigation for Israeli ships in the area.
- Israeli officials said the negotiations over the deal are in the final stage and it will likely be achieved today or tomorrow.
- A separate agreement with Saudi Arabia allowing Israeli airlines to use its air space for eastbound flights to India and China is also very close. Three Israeli officials said it is highly likely it will be announced during Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia.
What they're saying: "Israel hopes that the steps that Saudi Arabia could take in the coming days will be the beginning of a normalization process between the countries," an Israeli official said. "We can’t imagine the change in the region continuing without normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia and we are taking gradual steps towards that end."
- The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.