JERUSALEM—President Biden arrives in Israel on Wednesday to kick off a trip to the Middle East that his administration hopes will bolster U.S. ties in the region, but could yield limited progress on American priorities.
U.S. officials framed the four-day trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia as an opportunity to strengthen ties and promote stability, including by bringing the two countries he is visiting closer together, while countering threats from Iran. But the president’s allies worry he could conclude without substantial progress on energy or human rights issues, returning largely empty-handed to the U.S., where he is struggling with low approval ratings and high prices ahead of the midterm elections.
In recent days, White House officials have sought to lower expectations for the trip, contending that it could take months or longer to normalize relations between Israel and countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia.
“Any normalization of any kind would be a long process, but looking for progress and momentum in that direction is certainly something we are focused on as we head off to the Middle East,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters this week.
Mr. Sullivan said the U.S. must “remain intensively engaged in the Middle East,” arguing “it will pay dividends for American national interests and for the American people for years to come.” Biden administration officials said Mr. Biden is expected to use the first leg of his trip to make announcements on defense and aid to Palestinian hospitals, as well as to underscore the U.S. alliance with Israel.
Mr. Biden came into office promising a sustained focus on China, but Russia’s war in Ukraine has scrambled global dynamics, shifting attention to the Middle East, which the president hadn’t made a central focus of his foreign policy. After promising during his presidential campaign to make Saudi Arabia a pariah on the world stage, Mr. Biden has increasingly turned his focus toward the kingdom, with its heavy influence over the global oil markets that have soared in the aftermath of the Ukraine war.
“It’s amazing what an energy crisis will do to your thinking about energy producing countries,” said Jonathan Schanzer, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. He described the approach to Saudi Arabia as a return to the “U.S.-Saudi relationship built on American security guarantees in return for the steady supply of affordable oil.”
On the first leg of the trip, Mr. Biden is set to meet with Israel’s caretaker prime minister,
and Palestinian President
as well as Israel’s former prime minister,
the leader of the country’s opposition. He is scheduled to get a briefing on Israel’s missile-defense capabilities, participate in a virtual meeting with the leaders of Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates, and visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
A U.S. official said Mr. Biden is expected to announce new talks between the U.S. and Israel to co-develop the Iron Beam, an experimental laser system envisioned as a shield against Iran-backed attacks. Mr. Biden is also planning this week to sign a joint U.S.-Israel declaration touting the strategic partnership between the two countries, officials with knowledge of the matter said. This includes a commitment to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, strengthening regional cooperation, and ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region, Israeli officials said.
Mr. Biden’s visit is focused less on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than Israel’s deepening integration into the rest of the Arab world, part of a broader reshuffling under way in the region. He comes to Israel as a caretaker government is in place, with elections set for later this year.
But there were already signs that one of the administration’s most ambitious goals—forming a regional air-defense partnership with Israel and other Arab nations designed to protect the countries against threats from Iran —is facing headwinds.
Some of the Arab nations involved in the discussions have raised concerns about the partnership, people familiar with the matter said. Though Israel is working more closely than ever with Arab countries, the nations involved in the talks have varied and often conflicting interests, and key players like Saudi Arabia and Qatar don’t have official relations with Israel.
Israeli officials said they hope measures taken during Mr. Biden’s trip will initiate the process of normalizing diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
“This is a very delicate relationship. It’s very fragile,” a senior Israeli official said during a briefing with reporters Wednesday.
One of the signature announcements during the trip is expected to be the transfer of two islands from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, a long-awaited deal that could include steps toward Riyadh establishing formal ties with Israel, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Mr. Biden will be the first U.S. president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, underscoring his administration’s focus on building ties between those two countries.
The White House has offered limited details on Mr. Biden’s itinerary in Saudi Arabia. Officials said he would meet with the Saudi leadership, including King Salman and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and hold bilateral meetings with the leaders of other Middle Eastern nations. He will also attend a summit of Arab nations, where the White House said he will deliver a speech outlining his vision for the region.
—Dov Lieber contributed to this article.
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