A senior American official hinted Wednesday that more Arab nations are looking to make gestures to improve relations with Israel as US President Joe Biden readies to visit the region next month.
Biden will travel from July 13 to 16 to Israel, the West Bank, and to a regional meeting in Saudi Arabia, which former US president Donald Trump assiduously courted in hopes the kingdom home to Islam’s holiest sites would recognize the Jewish state.
US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said that the Biden administration was encouraging greater cooperation between Israel and the Arab nations with which it has relations.
“We are working, in the space that is not in the public domain, with a couple of other countries. And I think you’ll see some interesting things around the time of the president’s visit,” she told a congressional subcommittee.
Asked to elaborate, Leaf said, “I really wouldn’t want to step on the president’s toes.”
The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco became in 2020 the first Arab states in decades to normalize relations with Israel as part of the so-called Abraham Accords which Trump considered a signature foreign policy achievement. Sudan also signaled a willingness to normalize ties, but that has been largely frozen amid unrest in the African nation.
Leaf said that the UAE-Israel relationship “is going like gangbusters” but that the Biden administration also wanted to encourage broader cooperation.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined his counterparts from Israel, the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Egypt in a March meeting in Israel’s Negev desert.
Leaf said that the United States wanted the event to be an annual one and to include the Palestinian Authority and Jordan — the only other Arab nation that recognizes Israel but which has seen rising tensions over the status of Jerusalem.
The meetings aim to deepen cooperation in areas including water, tourism, health and food security, Leaf said.
Israel has also found common cause with Gulf Arab states in their tense relationships with Iran’s Shiite clerical state.
Separately Wednesday, the Axios news site reported that the White House is working on a “roadmap for normalization” between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The plan was revealed during a briefing with think tank experts last week, four sources familiar with the matter said.
Little additional details were provided to those present, but the US officials briefing the meeting clarified that an agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia would not be reached during Biden’s Mideast trip.
Another source told Axios that the Biden administration was pursuing a gradual process that would take time.
A senior Israeli official told the news site that while no major breakthrough was likely during Biden’s trip, a smaller agreement that would see Israeli airlines using Saudi airspace for flights to India and China was on the verge of being reached.
Also on Wednesday, Channel 12 aired an interview with a senior Saudi Arabian journalist said to be close with the country’s leaders, who claimed the Gulf state could normalize ties with Israel, even without American mediation.
“In my opinion, there is no need for the US president to be a meditator between Tel Aviv and other countries,” said Mubarak al-Ati, the director of Saudi Arabia’s official al-Ekhbariya Radio in a video aired on Channel 12
“The negotiating tables are open, and we can talk openly,” al-Ati said, mentioning recent remarks by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who said Israel could be a “potential ally” of Riyadh.
“Nothing is stopping relations with Israel… and I think all the signs show that Israel can be part of Saudi Arabia’s network of connections,” he added.