TEL AVIV: Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Monday he hoped a regional visit by US President Joe Biden this week will lead to a common Middle East market that includes Saudi Arabia.
Biden arrives in Israel on Wednesday and continues to Saudi Arabia on Friday. The White House has said the visit’s aims include expanding regional economic and security cooperation.
Air Force One will make an unprecedented direct flight between the Jewish state and the Gulf kingdom. Donald Trump had made a historic trip, in 2017, in the other direction.
Asked at an economic conference hosted by the Calcalist newspaper what he expects to arise from Biden’s visit, Lieberman said: “It is time to create a new, common market in the Middle East - Israel, Saudi Arabia, Gulf countries and Jordan. That’s the big challenge.”
“It will change the reality here from end to end, in both the fields of security and of economics. Therefore, I hope the emphasis during Biden’s visit will be on creating this new market in the Middle East.”
Israel normalised relations with four Arab countries under a 2020 US diplomatic drive that received Riyadh’s blessing. But Saudi Arabia has stopped short of formally recognising Israel in the absence of a resolution to Palestinian statehood goals.
In separate remarks to the conference, Israeli National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata said that within the framework of Biden’s visit “it is certainly possible to begin talking about the potential expansion of our markets in the region”.
“It’s no coincidence that Biden is coming here on Wednesday and continuing on Friday from here to Saudi Arabia by direct flight,” Haluta added.
“The ability to attend to these things carefully, step by step, can bring about breakthroughs.” Lieberman said his regional vision would include “a kind of trans-Middle East highway” and rail network linking up partner countries.
A lot in common
Deputy Foreign Minister Idan Roll said cultivating potential ties with the Saudis was a slow and gradual process.
“We are witnessing that we have a lot in common and that there are many benefits,” Roll told reporters.
“We have been working ... towards expanding the circle of peace and normalisation and I think that the past year and a half have demonstrated in a very convincing way that there are new opportunities and that moderate forces have new opportunities to work together, he said.
Asked whether Biden would be announcing direct flights from Israel to Saudi Arabia, Roll said: “As far as flights, you know, President Biden will visit Saudi after he visits here and we sure hope he will bring some news regarding normalisation with the Saudis. But ... I anticipate it will happen in steps. We will have to wait, all of us, until President Bidens visit to Saudi.”
Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, said the Biden administration “discovered what US administrations have discovered for decades: that doing a lot of things in the Middle East and around the world are much easier if the Saudis are trying to help you and much harder if they aren’t.”
Largest exporter of crude
In his op-ed, Biden said Saudi Arabia was “working with (his) experts to help stabilize oil markets.”
Washington wants the world’s largest exporter of crude to open the floodgates to bring down soaring gasoline prices, which threaten Democratic chances in November elections.
Biden aims in particular to “deepen and expand” the process of normalising relations between Israel and Arab states, initiated under Trump.
Aside from the symbolic Air Force One flight, analysts anticipate announcements on Saudi-Israeli relations.
The Jewish state is keen to receive Biden with great pomp, even in the midst of political turmoil as Israel prepares to hold its fifth election in less than four years in November.
Biden is due to meet Prime Minister Yair Lapid, but his advisers insist he also meet Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, as Trump had more or less ignored the Palestinians during his term.