What did Biden achieve on his trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel?

Despite the Saudis denying any intent of normalization, Prime Minister Yair Lapid said that their decision to allow Israeli overflights was, in fact, a form of normalization between the two countries.
US President Joe Biden meets Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Alsalam Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on July 15, 2022. (Photo by Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

There is a backstory to President Biden’s visit to Israel you may have missed. 

When President Isaac “Bougie” Herzog awarded Biden with the Presidential Medal of Honor, which is the highest honor Israel gives to civilians, President Biden connected generations in quite the profound way.

Decades earlier, Herzog’s uncle, Ambassador Yaakov Herzog, wrote a book called, “A People That Dwells Alone.”

It’s a book which explores the essence of the Jewish people’s seemingly existential position as a nation and people who will always have an element of isolation from the other nations of the world.

So, President Biden decided to say something which touched the hearts of many Israelis and Jews across the world. 

Biden referenced that book and then referenced the weekly Torah portion, insisting that that the Jewish people will not need to feel that way forever. Instead, he pointed out the opposite:

“As I look out on these proud, strong Israelis in the audience, at the nation that made the desert bloom and built the Iron Dome, I see people who are growing more secure, more integrated, more confident, and more — have greater relations with their neighbors; a nation that has forged peace before and can do it again; and a nation that will never dwell alone. Because as long as there’s the United States, you will never, ever be alone.”

Biden’s speech raises a question we find ourselves asking regularly:

Is that true? Are the Jewish people really destined to be alone? 

With Jews and Israelis now traveling across the Arab world, from Rabat to Dubai, are we alone? 

To what extent will there be normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia? And, what is normalization anyway?

How far away is normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia?

Leading up to Biden’s visit, U.S. Ambassador Tom Nides was clear that a normalization treaty was not going to be announced during the trip. However, Israeli officials had expected that Saudi Arabia would take steps toward that.

“Saudi Arabia is expected to allow Israeli airlines to use Saudi airspace for eastbound flights to India and China,” Barak Ravid of Axios reported before Biden’s visit. There was also “the possibility of direct charter flights to Saudi Arabia for Muslim Israeli pilgrims,” Ravid added.

In a Washington Post op-ed leading up to the trip, Biden noted that he would be the first president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia,” which he described as “a small symbol of the budding relations and steps toward normalization between Israel and the Arab world.”

Israeli President Isaac Herzog expressed a similar message in his speech welcoming Biden to Israel, telling the U.S. president, “This is your journey of peace from Israel to Saudi Arabia, from the Holy Land to the Hejaz.”

On Friday, Saudi Arabia announced that it was opening up its airspace to all civilian carriers, including from Israel, and it appeared that the kingdom was, in fact, taking steps toward normalization with Israel. 

(The statement did not explicitly mention Israel, but was perceived to be directed at Israel, which had been the only country that was not allowed to use Saudi airspace before Saturday, Jacob Magid of the Times of Israel reported.)

Despite this omission, Prime Minister Yair Lapid hailed the announcement as “the first official step in normalization with Saudi Arabia,” while Biden said it was “a big deal… the first tangible step on the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations.”

Then on Saturday, immediately after meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (known as MBS), Biden announced the withdrawal of international troops from the Red Sea Islands, and his Administration framed this as part of a bigger deal in which Saudi Arabia would take steps to normalize ties with Israel.

But hours later, this excitement was toned down when Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Salman was asked at a press conference about his country’s decision to open its skies to Israeli aircraft.

“This has nothing to do with diplomatic ties with Israel” and “it’s not in any way a precursor to any further steps,” the foreign minister said.

“The issue of overflights is a decision we took…in the interest of providing connectivity between countries in the world, and we hope that it will make some travelers’ lives easier,” he added.

Meanwhile, in an interview on CNN, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said that the kingdom will not fully normalize relations with Israel until a two-state solution with the Palestinian population is reached.

So, how far away is normalization with Saudi Arabia? Despite Biden and the Israelis’ optimistic framing, judging by the Saudis’ public statements, it seems like this is not happening anytime soon.

What does normalization even mean in the first place?

When two countries normalize relations, it means they are making their peaceful relations public after a war or period of conflict.

For example, in 1995, after 20 years of broken diplomatic ties following the end of the Vietnam War, then-U.S. President Bill Clinton announced the normalization of relations — the re-establishment of full diplomatic ties — between the U.S. and Vietnam.

Normalization opens the way for two countries to cooperate on a range of areas that benefit each country’s security and economy, and address their common challenges.

For instance, when the UAE, Bahrain and Israel normalized ties, signing the Abraham Accords in September 2020 with President Donald Trump at the White House, they signed bilateral agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security and the establishment of reciprocal embassies.

Having official diplomatic relations also creates new business and travel opportunities for the citizens of each country.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to this at the one-year anniversary of the Abraham Accords, noting that more than 130,000 Israelis visited the UAE within the first five months after the Accords were signed.

“There is a hunger to learn about each other’s cultures, to see new sights, to try new foods, forge new friendships — all experiences that have been impossible for so long…and now they’re making up for lost time,” Blinken said.

In the case of normalization between Israel and its neighboring countries, a key driver is the ability to cooperate on security and intelligence against the common threat of Iran.

The Iranians have been supplying missiles, drones and rockets to the Houthis in Yemen, who are using these weapons on a regular basis to attack Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, explained.

“So there are some very real and tangible common interests that lead Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together,” he said.

Arab countries have historically not normalized ties with Israel since 1948, and this has been slowly changing with peace treaties with Egypt in 1979, Jordan in 1994, and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in 2020.

Saudi Arabia: “The jewel in the normalization crown”

Why does normalization with Saudi Arabia matter and what makes it distinct from the countries that have joined the Abraham Accords so far (UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco)?

“Saudi Arabia has been the big prize, the jewel in the normalization crown for Israel,” Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, said.

“It’s the country that leads the Arab and Muslim world. It’s the custodian of the two holy mosques of Medina and Mecca. It has considerable influence in the region, and, of course, as one of the largest oil producers in the world, it also has influence there,” he added.

Although the Saudi crown prince wants to “get past this issue” and work with Israel to counter the common threat of Iran, the Saudis have preferred “to work with Israel below the radar screen,” Indyk said. 

Officially, Saudi Arabia has maintained that it will not normalize relations with Israel without progress toward a “just solution” to the Palestinian issue.

What does the relationship between Saudi Arabia and Israel look like today? The two countries do not have diplomatic ties. Official contact between the two countries is very limited and is usually done between proxies.

Officially, anyone with an Israeli passport, and even anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport, is forbidden entry into the kingdom (Israel stopped stamping passports in 2013).

Despite this, Israeli citizens report that they have been able to enter Saudi Arabia under a special visa program started in 2020.

Earlier this month, a group of 50 Jewish business leaders with ties to Israel visited the holy city of Medina. The goal of the visit was to build ties between the Israeli and Saudi business communities. The group also reported that the Saudi government removed “Muslim only” signs during their visit.

There is no official trade between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but Israeli goods have been sold in Saudi stores since 2005.

Diversity of perspectives: Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia

How did Israelis and Palestinians react to Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and the aftermath? 

Despite the Saudis’ statements denying any intent of normalization, Prime Minister Lapid said on Sunday that their decision to allow Israeli overflights was, in fact, a form of normalization between the two countries.

“What’s happening with Saudi Arabia is indeed normalization,” Lapid declared at the opening of the weekly Cabinet meeting, adding that the process is happening in “baby steps.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas interpreted this in the complete opposite way. After Biden’s visit, Abbas sent a letter of thanks to Saudi leaders “for their commitment, solidarity and firm stand by our people.”

Abbas thanked the king and crown prince for “their support for the national rights of our people and their just cause, emphasizing the end of the Israeli occupation of our land and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.”

He also expressed his thanks to “the sister countries participating in the summit for their firm and capable positions towards the Palestinian cause.”

According to Yoel Guzansky, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, Israel’s “hyped up” messaging surrounding the Saudis’ position on normalization may have harmed Israel in the Saudis’ eyes.

“I think Israel caused damage here,” Guzansky told The Times of Israel. “They inflated the Saudi issue with all sorts of leaks and briefings. It wasn’t historic,” he added, referring to the developments in Saudi-Israel during the trip.

“I think it reflects a lack of understanding in Israel about where the Saudis stand, what their sensitivities are, what their interests are,” he added.

Meanwhile, Haaretz correspondent Ben Samuels argued that Biden’s visit to the Middle East “did herald one significant lasting change: the United States has all but uncoupled Israel from the Palestinians, following in President Donald Trump’s footsteps and centering Israeli policy around Arab normalization and regional integration.”

What’s happening with Iran?

During Biden’s visit he signed the “Jerusalem Declaration,” which in part states:

“The United States stresses that integral to this pledge is the commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that it is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome. The United States further affirms the commitment to work together with other partners to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities, whether advanced directly or through proxies and terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.”

Although some Israeli critics said the declaration didn’t go far enough on defining what “all elements of its national power” entail (i.e. military options), Prime Minister Lapid praised the move going as far as hanging the signed document in his cabinet’s meeting room.

However, during a joint press conference Lapid did stress to Biden that Iran had to be stopped from developing a nuclear weapon and stopping them had to include military options.

“Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them,” Lapid said standing next to the president. “The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that– if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force. The only way to stop them is to put a credible military threat on the table.”

Just days after Biden’s visit to Israel a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the country is already technically capable of building a nuclear bomb.

“In a few days we were able to enrich uranium up to 60% and we can easily produce 90% enriched uranium,” Kamal Kharrazi told Al Jazeera. “Iran has the technical means to produce a nuclear bomb but there has been no decision by Iran to build one.”

The announcement was met with a strong rebuke from the head of the Israeli Defense Forces.

“The IDF continues to prepare vigorously for an attack on Iran and must prepare for any development and any scenario,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi said. “Preparing a military option against the Iranian nuclear program is a moral obligation and a national security order,” adding that “diplomacy may fail.”

Publicly, Israel has remained strongly against diplomatic efforts aimed at ending the Iranian nuclear program, favoring instead isolation and sanctions coupled with a constant military threat.

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 nuclear pact with Iran in 2018 was met mostly with praise in Israel. Biden has attempted to restart the talks but so far they have mostly stalled.

In Israel, there are rumblings that a new treaty may be a better option, or at least the best option, to buy the country more time to formulate a military response. According to the New York Times:

“Officials on the military side said that the new chief of the I.D.F.’s Intelligence Corps, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, and his aides are arguing in internal discussions that any deal, even one with major flaws, would be better than the status quo, with Tehran making rapid progress in its nuclear program. It would freeze Tehran’s activities at current levels, they say, and give Israel time to rebuild its capacity to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.”

Despite this, Israel has adopted a more direct approach to Iran, an approach that has included several high level assassinations and sabotage missions.

Referred to as “the Octopus Doctrine,” former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett described the shift in policy as: “We no longer play with the tentacles, with Iran’s proxies: we’ve created a new equation by going for the head.”

In an interview with Israel’s Channel 12 News, which aired during his visit, Biden said that the U.S. would only use military force against Iran “as a last resort” to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Biden: “As long as there’s the United States you will never be alone”

In his speech accepting the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor from President Isaac Herzog, Biden quoted from the Torah portion that was read last week in the Diaspora, “Balak,” in which Israel is called “the people that dwell alone.”

“As I look out at these proud, strong Israelis in the audience, at the nation that made the desert bloom and built the Iron Dome, I see people who are growing more secure, more integrated, more confident and have greater relations with their neighbors. A nation that has forged peace before and can do it again,” Biden said.

“And a nation that will never dwell alone, because as long as there’s the United States you will never be alone,” he added.

Biden also said that “seeing the wildest dreams of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers grow into a reality that Israel’s children enjoy today, to me is close to miraculous.”

In his speech upon landing in Tel Aviv, Biden recalled meeting Golda Meir in 1973 when he was a 30-year old senator, adding that he has known every Israeli prime minister since then.

“I look back on it all now, and I realize that I had the great honor of living part of the great history of this great — and I did say and I say again, you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist,” he said. (In a 2007 interview with Shalom TV Biden said the same thing.)

Bonus: Interview with the White House Jewish Liaison

Ahead of President Biden’s visit to Israel and the Middle East, we caught up with Chanan Weissman, White House liaison to the American Jewish community, to ask about the president’s thinking on Israel, the issue of settlements and the Abraham Accords.

Chanan was on the plane to Israel while he answered our questions and you can read a transcript of our conversation here. (Editor’s note: Chanan is the brother of our executive vice president Noam Weissman.)