In a message to Saudi Arabia ahead of US President Joe Biden’s expected direct flight from Israel to there this week, Prime Minister Yair Lapid called on Sunday for all countries in the region to build ties with Israel.
“From Jerusalem, the [US] president’s plane will fly to Saudi Arabia, and he will carry with it a message of peace and hope from us,” Lapid said at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting.
“Israel reaches out to all the countries in the region and calls on them to build ties with us, to establish relations with us and to change history for the sake of our children,” he said.
Lapid said that Biden’s visit was set to focus on Iran and, referring to a report Saturday that Iran has begun to use advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium at the underground Fordo facility, called for the international community to immediately impose sanctions on Tehran.
“Israel, for its part, reserves full freedom of action — political and operational — in the fight against the Iranian nuclear program,” Lapid said.
Biden is expected in Israel and the West Bank this week for a packed two-day visit, followed by a trip to Saudi Arabia for a Saturday meeting with regional Mideast leaders as part of the GCC+3 summit (the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE along with Iraq, Egypt and Jordan).
Encouraging Arab nations to strengthen security ties and overall relations with Israel is one of the aims of Biden’s travels to Israel and Saudi Arabia, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Thursday.
In an initiative it is hoping to finalize before the president lands, the US is working on the transfer of a pair of Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi control as part of an agreement that would see Riyadh take a series of steps to normalize ties with Israel, an Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel last week.
Israel handed over control of the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Egypt as part of their 1979 peace agreement, but the sides agreed to demilitarize the islands and to allow the presence of a multinational observer force. Israel is now seeking similar assurances from Saudi Arabia in order to sign off on the deal, but Riyadh has been hesitant to put the commitment in writing, the Middle East diplomat said.
The normalization measures would include Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli flights to the Far East, in addition to rolling out direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims, the Middle East diplomat said, confirming reporting in the Axios news site.
Lapid made the comments at the Sunday meeting hours after Biden published an op-ed in which he said he will be the first American president to fly from Israel directly to Saudi Arabia, in a “small symbol” of the warming ties between Israel and the Arab world and “steps toward normalization.”
In a Washington Post opinion article on Saturday titled “Why I’m Going To Saudi Arabia,” Biden also said his administration was “working to deepen and expand” normalization between Israel and Arab countries.
In Saudi Arabia, Biden is expected to press for increased Saudi oil production in the hope of taming spiraling fuel costs and inflation at home, a marked departure from his pledge during his election campaign to treat Riyadh like a “pariah” over its human rights record and the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi — a Saudi-born US resident known for writing critical articles about the kingdom’s rulers for The Washington Post — in Turkey, allegedly by agents of Saudi Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Biden said the region has its many challenges — including Iran’s nuclear program and support for proxy groups — but is now “less pressurized and more integrated.”
Israeli-Arab security overtures have multiplied since the 2020 Abraham Accords negotiated under the Trump administration normalized relations between Israel and four Arab League nations.
They have grown further since the Pentagon switched coordination with Israel from US European Command to Central Command, or CENTCOM, last year. The move grouped Israel’s military with former Arab opponents, including Saudi Arabia and other nations that have yet to recognize Israel.
“These are promising trends, which the United States can strengthen in a way no other country can. My travel next week will serve that purpose,” said Biden.
Jacob Magid agencies and contributors to this report.