Axios from Tel Aviv

A set of building blocks, each decorated with a flag of a country in the Middle East.
July 13, 2022

Welcome back to Axios from Tel Aviv.

  • This week's edition (1,669 words, 6½ minutes) starts in Israel, where President Biden landed just hours ago for a trip that includes stops in Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank before a controversial visit to Saudi Arabia.

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1 big thing: What to expect from Biden's visit

 Blinken, Israel's President Isaac Herzog, US President Joe Biden, Israel's caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid and outgoing Prime Minister Naftali Bennett stand for the national anthems
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden's Middle East trip is aimed at sending a message to the Israeli people that he cares deeply about the Jewish state and its security, as well as reassuring the Palestinians of his administration's support, officials have said.

  • But the more important, and controversial, stop on his trip will be his visit to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Driving the news: Upon landing in Tel Aviv, Biden was greeted by Yair Lapid, who became acting prime minister less than two weeks ago after the coalition government collapsed and new elections were called.

  • Biden was briefed on the new “Iron Beam” system, which uses lasers to destroy rockets. He headed to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem — a stop every U.S. president makes when visiting Israel.

What to expect: Biden and Lapid on Thursday will have a working meeting before holding a virtual summit with Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that will focus on food security.

  • During his talks with Israeli officials, Biden is expected to discuss Iran, the normalization process between Israel and its Arab neighbors, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Biden and Lapid will also sign "The Jerusalem Declaration," which will serve as the framework for the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship moving forward.

  • The joint declaration will include a clause that says the U.S. and Israel will never allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon and will make use of all elements of their national power to make sure it doesn’t happen, Israeli officials said.
  • Israeli and U.S. officials have been working on the declaration for almost two months, and Israeli officials say such a broad and comprehensive statement on the U.S.-Israeli relationship hasn’t been published in more than two decades.
  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday that Israel has a different view than the U.S. about the Iran deal, but the Biden administration believes diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

Biden will meet Israeli President Isaac Herzog later on Thursday and will participate in a reception with senior Israeli officials.

  • He will also hold a 15-minute meeting with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Friday morning, Biden will visit a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem and meet with Palestinian civil society activists before heading to Bethlehem to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (see item 2).

  • Biden will then travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for the last leg of his trip late Friday (see item 3).

Go deeper.

2. Palestinians aren't expecting much from visit

Palestinians wave flags at a demonstration in Gaza.
Palestinians wave flags at a demonstration in Gaza in June. Photo: Mahmoud Issa/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The Palestinian leadership has very low expectations for Biden’s visit to the occupied West Bank on Friday, Palestinian officials say.

Why it matters: After the breakdown in relations with the U.S. during the Trump administration, the Palestinians had hoped the Biden administration would push diplomatic initiatives in their favor. But the U.S. has stalled on making good on key promises, including reopening the consulate in Jerusalem.

State of play: Palestinian officials pressed the U.S. in recent weeks to give them some diplomatic deliverables during the visit, like clearly stating the Biden administration’s parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, Palestinian and U.S. officials said.

  • Biden said today that even though he knows "it won’t happen in the near future, we will discuss ... my support for a two-state solution," as well as work on increasing Israel’s integration in the region.
  • The big deliverable the Palestinians are going to get during the visit is an announcement by Biden on $100 million in aid to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem.

Driving the news: On Friday morning, Biden will visit the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, where he will meet representatives of Palestinian civil society organizations.

  • The U.S. designated the visit as “private” and rejected Israeli requests to send a government representative to join the visit.
  • Between the lines: This was a subtle signal that although the Biden administration didn’t roll back Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, it doesn’t necessarily recognize Israeli sovereignty in the eastern part of the city.

Later on Friday, Biden will travel to Bethlehem for a meeting with President Abbas and a visit to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

What to watch: A big question is whether Biden will speak about the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on the trip.

  • Sullivan told reporters that Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke on the phone on Wednesday with Abu Akleh's family and invited them for a meeting in Washington.

3. Announcement on Saudi-Israeli normalization steps expected

Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Steps toward normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel are expected to be announced over the weekend after Biden meets in Jeddah with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, three Israeli officials told me.

The big picture: The White House wants to discuss a road map for normalization between the countries during Biden's visit to the region.

State of play: 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.

  • The Saudi Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

4. View from Abu Dhabi: Optimism among GCC countries

GCC leaders in Riyadh on Dec. 14, 2021. Photo:  Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
GCC leaders in Riyadh on Dec. 14, 2021. Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Gulf region is expressing some optimism for Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week, Mustafa Alrawi, assistant editor-in-chief of The National, writes for Axios from Abu Dhabi.

Driving the news: Biden on Saturday will meet with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Iraq and Jordan (known as the GCC+3). This forum has added an extra dimension to the GCC’s influence, and the meeting is significant for both Gulf and U.S. interests.

What to expect: There are plenty of areas of common interest and where progress can be made.

  • At the meeting, the GCC countries — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE — are expected to discuss prioritizing defense matters, countering Iran, and solidifying support for the Yemen war truce, as well as exploring economic initiatives with the U.S.
  • Cybersecurity, as well as the development of a regionally integrated air defense system, is also expected to be discussed.
  • Although the chances of a new nuclear deal with Iran appear to be low, the GCC countries hope that any return to the deal will also include Iran’s ballistic missile and drone threat.

The big picture: Continued support from the U.S.-led effort to end the war in Yemen will also be a key issue.

  • While global energy security and high oil prices will be on the agenda during Biden’s visit, investment in clean energy, such as solar, would also be a priority for Gulf countries, which have set targets for net-zero carbon emissions.

5. U.S., Saudi, Israeli and other officials hold meeting on Hezbollah

Hezbollah fighters take part in a parade in May. Photo: AFP via Getty Images
Hezbollah fighters take part in a parade in May. Photo: AFP via Getty Images

Diplomats, law enforcement officers and intelligence experts from Israel, Saudi Arabia, four other Gulf states and two dozen additional countries gathered in late June for a two-day meeting, organized by the U.S. State Department, on countering Hezbollah's illicit activities, according to U.S. and Israeli officials.

Why it matters: The meeting of the Law Enforcement Coordination Group, which was established in 2014, was part of an effort led by the U.S. to mobilize countries to counter Hezbollah’s activities outside of Lebanon in order to block its terror, finance and procurement networks, a State Department official told me.

Driving the news: 30 countries attended the meeting on June 29-30, which was held in Europe and was the first such meeting since President Biden took office.

  • Officials from Bahrain, Israel, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and many European, African and Latin American countries took part, according to sources with direct knowledge.
  • Hezbollah, a political and militant organization based in Lebanon, has been declared a terrorist group by about 20 countries as well as the Arab League and EU. There was a push during the meeting for more countries — particularly in Africa and Latin America — to join them, according to a State Department official who attended the meeting.
  • European countries that had more recently designated Hezbollah a terrorist group encouraged other countries to follow suit and noted that Hezbollah did not retaliate after their designations, the official said.

Behind the scenes: The State Department official said one of the main points the U.S. wanted to stress to the participants was that despite the economic problems in Iran and Lebanon, Hezbollah is still expanding its terror and criminal activity around the world.

  • The main area of concern discussed in the meeting was Hezbollah’s operations in Africa and Latin America, where the State Department official said the organization is looking for alternative sources of financing and procurement.