WASHINGTON – U.S. President Joe Biden will visit Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia on July 13-16, a senior administration official said Monday.
The trip will be Biden's first visit to the Middle East as president, though he first visited Israel over 50 years ago as a senator and has been considered among Israel's most staunch U.S. political allies in its history. His visit comes as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's year-old coalition faces its most serious crisis yet, though Israel's domestic political situation is unlikely to derail the visit.
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Biden's trip was originally slated for June, but was postponed.
"The president will reaffirm the ironclad U.S. commitment to Israel's security, and deepening cooperation and technology, climate, commerce, trade and other sectors," the official said. Biden will likely visit areas where an Iron Dome missile defense system battery is deployed, the official said, and will "discuss new innovations between our countries that use laser technologies to defeat missiles and other airborne threats."
Biden will devote a significant portion of the trip to Israel's increasing integration into the region, following the signing of the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Bahrain, deepening ties with Jordan and Egypt, as well as the so-called "I2-U2" quad alliance between the U.S., Israel, India and the UAE.
Biden will hold a virtual summit with Bennett, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and UAE President Mohammad bin Zayed, the official noted, to discuss "the food security crisis, and other areas of cooperation across hemispheres where UAE and Israel serve as important innovation hubs."
Biden, who is expected to meet with Bennett and President Isaac Herzog, will also hold additional side meetings while in Israel which the U.S. will detail closer to the visit. The official noted Biden may meet with athletes participating in the Maccabiah games, which brings Jewish athletes from around the world to Israel for an Olympics-like competition.
Biden will then visit the West Bank, where he will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian officials, to discuss "his lifelong commitment to the two-state solution and the ways in which we might rekindle a new political horizon," per the official.
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The administration has recently taken steps to repair the United States' relationship with the Palestinians after the Trump administration effectively severed ties between the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority.
Most recently, the Biden administration redefined which part of the U.S. Embassy in Israel deals with the Palestinians in a symbolic move, and sent top U.S. diplomat Barbara Leaf to Israel and the West Bank in a bid to express U.S. support for a two-state solution.
The official noted that the Biden-Abbas meet would be a "culmination of these contacts, but also the start of what we hope will be new and reinvigorated dialogue, both between the United States and the PA but also between the PA, regional capitals and most importantly Israelis."
Palestinian officials have indicated these moves are not sufficient alternatives to Biden's promise last year to reopen a consulate in East Jerusalem, which the U.S. is yet to do. Israel has said it would not consent to this and proposed that a consulate be opened in Ramallah instead. The U.S., meanwhile, has maintained that it still intends to reopen the consulate, though Israel has drawn an explicit line in the sand on the matter. It has become a domestic political football for Biden — one that he will likely not seek to engage with ahead of the critical 2022 midterm elections.
Biden will then head to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia where he will meet with the heads of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. The president said earlier this week that Israeli national security would be a primary issue during the Saudi visit, more so than spiking oil prices within the United States.
The official said Biden would discuss issues including the Yemen cease-fire, means for regional economic and security cooperation — "including new and promising infrastructure climate initiatives as well as the current threat from Iran" — advancing human rights and ensuring global energy and food security.
The U.S. is committed to "the territorial defense of our partners against threats from Iran or elsewhere, and doing so in new integrated and innovative ways," the official added, potentially referring to recent efforts aimed at bolstering defense cooperation between Israel and Arab countries with the Pentagon’s involvement. U.S. defense officials have publicly encouraged such cooperation for months in hopes of thwarting threats from Iran and its proxies.
Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia has generated its share of domestic controversy. The president seeks to get the Saudis to pump more oil but has been hampered by his campaign promise of holding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman accountable for human rights violations including the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The official noted that the administration has consistently made clear that "U.S. policy demands recalibration in relations with this important country but not a rupture," adding that "engagement is essential to protecting and advancing interests on behalf of the American people."
A visit to Saudi Arabia is "the smart thing to do at the right time" for the sake of regional and global security and due to the current state of global affairs, the official noted, adding "this visit is a culmination of months of diplomacy — bilateral and multilateral."
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said that Israel and Arab countries worried about Iran should build up their military capabilities under Washington's aegis. In a speech, Gantz cited Israel's security ties with Gulf Arab states that drew closer to it under a 2020 U.S.-sponsored diplomatic drive, as well as Egypt and Jordan, and said there were efforts to expand such cooperation.
"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," he said, according to an official transcript.
"On this, we are working continually, for the sake of the security of Israel's citizens," Gantz said.
Reuters contributed to this report.