A U.S. State Department official has hinted that President Joe Biden's visit to the Middle East next month could bring new developments in the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
When asked by members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee how she viewed the Abraham Accords and where they may go next, Barbara Leaf, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, raised expectations with her remarks.
“We are working in the space that is not in the public domain with a couple of other countries. I think you'll see some interesting things around the time of the president's visit,” she said.
Rep. Kathy Manning, from North Carolina, asked Leaf specifically about the prospects of an opportunity to boost ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
“I know from many discussions with Israeli leaders and Israeli citizens … this is the ultimate aspiration,” Leaf responded. “They see this as a foundational point of a larger reconciliation within the region and more globally beyond with the larger Muslim community around the world.”
Leaf is not the first member of the administration to imply that Israel and Saudi Arabia may be inching closer. Earlier this month, Biden himself hinted that his visit has more in store than just talks on gas prices.
“The commitments from the Saudis don’t relate to anything having to do with energy,” the president said. “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.”
“I have a program – anyway. It has to do with much larger issues than having to do with the energy piece,” he added.
During the president’s visit to the region, Air Force One is scheduled to fly directly from Israel to Jeddah – a sign of a new era between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors. Trump took the first-ever direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel during his first overseas visit while president.
Shortly after Biden's visit was officially announced by the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said it will “reveal the steps that are being taken by the U.S. to integrate Israel into the Middle East and increase the prosperity of the entire region.”
However, even before the President’s itinerary was published, Axios reported back in May that the United States is working on facilitating a deal that involved Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. Such a deal, if reached, could be the first step on the path to Saudi-Israeli normalization of ties.
According to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid, the deal will include the transfer of two strategic islands in the Red Sea from Egyptian to Saudi sovereignty, islands of Tiran and Sanafir.
The report quoted sources, saying that the “arrangement could build trust between the parties and create an opening to warm relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, which do not have official diplomatic relations.”
Israeli media outlets have also reported that a senior Israeli official visited Saudi Arabia recently for talks of growing cooperation between the two countries, including in the field of security. In another report, an unnamed Israeli official confirmed to Israel Hayom newspaper that there are indeed direct contacts with the Saudis.
On Monday, when Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu kicked off his election campaign, he told reporters that if elected, he is determined to enlarge the “circle of peace” with Arab states. He hinted that there is good reason to believe that another peace opportunity is just around the corner.
On the issue of Iran, Juan Vargas, who represents California, asked Leaf if there are any doubts in her mind that Tehran is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
“What I can say is that the level of enrichment and the use of sensitive nuclear technology that they're pursuing has nothing to do with legitimate energy and civilian energy needs,” Leaf replied.
Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.