U.S. hints at Israeli-Arab normalization steps around Biden’s Middle East visit

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Barbara Leaf, the State Department’s most senior diplomat for the Middle East, hinted at a House subcommittee hearing Wednesday that President Biden’s visit to the region next month could lead to more normalization steps by Arab countries towards Israel.

Why it matters: This would be an achievement for President Biden and show he has continued to help foster progress on the warming of relations between Israel and the Arab world after the Trump administration brokered the Abraham Accords, which led to normalization agreements between Israel and four Arab countries.

What they’re saying: “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,” Leaf, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, said when asked about whether the Biden administration is working to expand the Abraham Accords.

  • When asked to elaborate, Leaf said: “I wouldn’t want to step on the president’s toes.”

Driving the news: The White House last week held a briefing with think tank experts about Biden’s trip to the region and said it has been working on a “road map for normalization” between Saudi Arabia and Israel, as Axios first reported.

  • The White House said during the briefing that there will not be an agreement before Biden’s visit, but they are working on it and the president will discuss it with Israeli and Saudi leaders during the trip, four sources with knowledge of the matter said.
  • The White House thinks that any road map for normalization will take time and will be a long-term process, a different source briefed on the issue said. Another source briefed on the matter described the strategy as a step-by-step approach.

Catch up quick: The Biden administration has been quietly mediating among Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt on a potential deal to finalize the transfer of two strategic islands in the Red Sea from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, as Axios first reported.

  • If successful, the mediation efforts could lead to separate normalization steps like Saudi permission to Israeli airlines to use Saudi airspace for eastbound flights to India and China.

Go deeper: U.S. negotiating deal among Saudis, Israelis and Egyptians

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