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From Iran to Israel, 5 Middle East stories to watch at UNGA summit

The US agenda includes a long-sought meeting between President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images

NEW YORK — World leaders are descending on New York for the 78th UN General Assembly (UNGA) summit. Here are the top Middle East stories to watch during the week of diplomatic speed-dating and heads-of-state speeches.

Several Middle Eastern leaders and prime ministers will be attending the UNGA in person this year, while others have sent foreign ministers to lead the delegations. The leaders and prime ministers include Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, King of Jordan Abdullah II, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani, Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Kuwaiti Prime Minister Ahmad Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will host the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council on Monday. He is also expected to hold series of bilaterals with several Gulf counterparts over the week. 

These are the main Middle East headlines that are expected to dominate this UNGA: 

Iran-US prisoner swap

Kicking off the United Nations' annual meeting is the release of five Americans wrongfully detained in Iran. On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani and the White House confirmed the release of Morad Tahbaz, Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi and two unidentified US citizens held in the country. 

On Aug. 10, four of the detained Americans were moved from Evin Prison to a hotel in the capital. A fifth American included in the swap was already under house arrest. 

The prisoners' expected release comes as Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in New York to attend the UN meetings. Both Raisi and President Joe Biden will address the UN General Assembly on Tuesday. 

Netanyahu and Biden to finally meet  

Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu is finally getting his long-sought meeting with President Joe Biden — but not at the White House. 

Their meeting on the sidelines of the UN summit is scheduled for Wednesday, and is an attempt to split the difference. It will be their first face-to-face encounter since Netanyahu was elected in November to lead Israel’s most right-wing and religiously conservative government in its history. 

Netanyahu hadn’t been granted a customary White House invite in a sign of the Biden administration’s disapproval of his contentious judicial overhaul plan. 

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Friday that Biden and Netanyahu would discuss “shared democratic values between the United States and Israel” and a vision for a more integrated region. They’ll also compare notes on how to effectively counter Iran, Sullivan said. 

Palestinian-Israeli peace push 

The Arab League, Saudi Arabia and European Union will hold an event Monday morning focused on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israeli and Palestinian officials will not attend the event, dubbed the “Peace Day Effort for Middle East Peace."

The Times of Israel reports that participating countries, which also include Jordan and Egypt, will draft a “Peace Supporting Package” to present to Israel and the Palestinian Authority “upon the signing of a future peace agreement."

The initiative comes as the White House is pushing for an agreement to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. As part of that deal, Riyadh is seeking concessions for the Palestinians. 

Erdogan visit clouded by NATO delay 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to New York is unlikely to yield much progress in Turkey-US ties that are strained Ankara’s slow-walking Sweden’s NATO accession and a pending sale of F-16 fighter jets.

The White House backs the $20 billion sale to Turkey but needs buy-in from the top Democrats and Republicans on the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations committees who have the power to block it. They could be swayed if the Turkish Parliament ratifies Sweden’s NATO accession. 

Erdogan’s jam-packed schedule in New York also includes meetings with Netanyahu, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He will address the assembly on Tuesday.   

Houthi visit fuels Yemen optimism  

Days before the UN General Assembly kicked off, a delegation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels flew to Saudi Arabia for their first such visit to the kingdom since the war erupted in 2014. An informal truce between the warring parties has largely held despite its expiration after six months in October 2022.  

The Houthi-Saudi talks came a week after senior US officials including White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and US special envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking visited the region to discuss extending the cease-fire. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet on Monday with Rashad al-Alimi, the head of Yemen’s Presidential Leadership Council. 

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