Joe Biden is slated to visit Saudi Arabia next month, a significant restoration of relations with the kingdom, which soured following the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Biden’s tour in mid-July will start in Israel and the occupied West Bank, where the president aims to reinforce “the United States’ iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said on Tuesday.
“As the president often says about Israel, he learned as a young boy from his father that if Israel did not exist, then we would need to invent it,” an unnamed senior White House official claimed in a briefing to reporters following confirmation of Biden’s travel plans.
Biden will meet with Israeli leaders just two months following the killing Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, a US citizen who by all indications was murdered by an Israeli soldier on 11 May.
Biden will also meet with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, “to reiterate his strong support for a two-state solution,” Jean-Pierre added.
Given that the long-running American-led “peace process” has been dead for years, it is unclear what this commitment amounts to. Both the US and European Union continue to pay lip service to a “two-state solution” while regularly rewarding Israel as it colonizes ever more Palestinian land.
This unconditional Western support also means that Israel is able to perpetrate myriad violations of Palestinian rights – including the crime against humanity of apartheid – secure in the knowledge it will pay no price.
Biden will then fly directly from Israel to the Saudi city of Jeddah.
This would be the first meeting of a US president with Saudi leadership since the horrifying October 2018 murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hasn’t entered the US since either, where multiple lawsuits have been filed against him in relation to the killing.
The CIA has concluded that the crown prince approved Khashoggi’s murder.
Reinforcing US hegemony
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged that as president he would make the Saudi kingdom a “pariah” for the killing of Khashoggi. He also said he would not sell more weapons to Saudi Arabia.
But it appears that the benefits of thawing of relations outweigh such promises.
The unnamed senior White House official who briefed media said that while the administration imposed the so-called “Khashoggi ban” on more than 70 Saudi individuals and entities, rekindling ties is critical.
“While we recalibrate relations, we’re not seeking to rupture relations, because Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for eight decades,” the official said Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia is also the United States’ largest arms customer, accounting for a quarter of US weapons sold worldwide.
At the top of Biden’s mind is undoubtedly the fear that his Democratic Party faces potential disaster in November’s midterm elections as gasoline prices soar to record levels and ordinary Americans struggle with the highest inflation rate in four decades.
But the president has sought to deflect criticism that his embrace of the crown prince is motivated by the need to cut oil prices, by claiming he’s doing it for Israel’s sake.
“The commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy,” Biden said last Sunday. “It happens to be a larger meeting taking place in Saudi Arabia. That’s the reason I’m going. And it has to do with national security for them – for Israelis.”
There is certainly an element of truth in that.
Indeed, the US is keenly interested in seeing Saudi Arabia fully integrated in the US-Israel-Gulf axis that aims to weaken Iran’s regional influence.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the US has been looking for new energy sources in an effort to isolate Moscow economically and politically.
So far the effort has been a spectacular failure: Russia’s oil revenues have soared to record levels despite Western sanctions, while American and European consumers – and others around the world – see their energy bills spike painfully.
The Saudis did not immediately rush to Washington’s rescue. Reports emerged a few weeks after the start of the war that Saudi Arabia was in talks with China to conduct oil sales in yuan, China’s currency.
This would present a major threat to the position of the US dollar, whose global dominance stems in large part from its use for trading commodities. It would also mark a decisive shift in global power towards Asia – something the stewards of America’s empire view as a mortal threat.
One thing is clear: Biden is continuing the Trump administration’s efforts to build an anti-Iran axis by brokering normalization deals between Israel and other US regional clients. The so-called Abraham Accords have already brought the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco into the fold. But the biggest prize for the Americans will be securing formal Saudi relations with Israel.
Warming relations with Israel
Biden’s plan to visit Saudi Arabia comes amid recent reports about warming relations between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Israeli media reported that “dozens” of Israeli businesspeople have recently traveled to Saudi Arabia on their Israeli passports.
When White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman last September they reportedly discussed normalizing relations with Israel.
They reportedly met in Neom – a supposedly state-of-the-art city the Saudi government is trying to build on its Red Sea coast.
Neom is also where the crown prince hosted a delegation of Christian evangelicals and pro-Israel American figures in September 2019.
The following year, the crown prince reportedly met in Neom with Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israel’s prime minister, though the Saudis denied it.
A normalization deal may also involve the transfer of two strategic islands in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Arabia – a move that would require Israeli approval.
Egyptian control over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir dates back decades, when Saudi Arabia requested that Egypt administer them.
In 2017, however, in a highly contentious decision, Egypt agreed to hand them over to Riyadh.
Under its 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, Israel’s approval would be required for the deployment of any forces on the islands, since they sit right at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba which leads to the Israeli port of Eilat.
Five years ago, Saudi Arabia approached Israel directly for talks about the islands without US mediation, Tel Aviv daily Haaretz reported last month.
Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid said last month that establishing full diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia would take time, but that he believed it would happen.
“We will not wake up one morning to a surprise, rather it will be a long and cautious process on both sides. There are security interests for both countries,” he said.
“We have always seen normalization as the end result for a path,” Lapid’s Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan told the publication Axios last month.
“Normalization between the region and Israel will bring benefits but we won’t be able to reap those benefits unless we are able to address the issue of Palestine,” the Saudi foreign minister added.
So far, however, any professed concern about Palestine has not stopped Israel and Saudi Arabia from steadily tightening their mutual embrace.
Biden undoubtedly hopes he will finish Trump’s work and preside over the official marriage.
Ali Abunimah contributed reporting.
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