TEL AVIV: US President Joe Biden arrived on Wednesday in Israel, which embraced him as an old friend on the first leg of a high-stakes trip dominated by efforts to bring it closer to Saudi Arabia and to persuade Washington’s Gulf allies to pump more oil.
Arriving on Air Force One at Ben Gurion Airport, whose tarmac he first trod in 1973 as a senator, Biden bumped fists with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and, in a speech, described the United States’ connection with the country as “bone-deep”.
“We have a full agenda over the next few days, because the relationship between Israel and the United States covers every issue that matters to our mutual future,’’ said Biden. “We are united in our shared values and our shared vision.’’
“You do not need to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” Biden added, while restating his support for a two-state solution which he described as “the best hope for Israel and the Palestinians”.
It is Biden’s 10th visit to Israel, which has stepped carefully around disagreements with Washington over Iranian nuclear diplomacy and long-stalled Palestinian statehood negotiations.
“Your relationship with Israel has always been personal,” Lapid said in a speech, calling Biden “a great Zionist and one of the best friends Israel has ever known”.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog made clear that Iran’s nuclear programme will be a central focus for the Israeli side in their discussions with Biden. And Herzog noted the “security challenges emanating directly from Iran and its proxies, threatening Israel and its neighbors and endangering our region.’’
“We will discuss the need to renew a strong global coalition that will stop the Iranian nuclear programme,’’ Lapid said.
Biden will spend two days in Jerusalem for talks with Israeli leaders before meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday in the occupied West Bank.
Afterward, he will take a direct flight from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - a first for an American president - on Friday for talks with Saudi officials and to attend a summit of Gulf allies.
US officials say the trip - Biden’s first to the Middle East as president - could produce more steps toward normalisation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, historic foes but also two of America’s strongest allies in the turbulent region.
“We’re making steps gradually toward that end,” said an Israeli official, adding that the fact Biden will fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia “encapsulates a lot of the dynamics that have been evolving over the last months”.
Biden’s trip aims to promote regional stability, deepen Israel’s integration in the region.
Amid Israel’s stalemate with the Palestinians, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated Washington’s desire for the reopening of a Jerusalem consulate shut down by the former US administration of President Donald Trump. The consulate had served the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as capital of a future state.
“Obviously that requires engagement with the Israeli government. It requires engagement with the Palestinian leadership as well. And we will continue that engagement on this trip,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force 1.
Soaring oil prices back home
Wasel Abu Youssuf, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said in response: “It’s much ado about nothing.”
Biden, under pressure at home to bring down soaring gasoline prices that have damaged his standing in public opinion polls, is expected to press Gulf allies to expand oil production to help bring those prices down.
He said details about a price cap on oil from Russia were still being worked out with European partners but he warned that signs of a deepening relationship between Russia and Iran should be seen as a profound threat.
A centerpiece of Biden’s visit will be talks in Jeddah with Saudi leaders including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Biden’s talks with Abbas will mark the highest level of face-to-face contact between the United States and the Palestinians since Trump took a tough approach to the Palestinians upon taking office in 2017.
Tensions are high between Israel and the Palestinians over the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh in May.
Her family, having accused the United States of providing impunity for Israel over her killing, has asked to meet Biden during his trip to the region this week. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had spoken with the family, Sullivan said, and invited them to a meeting.
The Palestinians, while appreciating the resumption of ties under Biden, want him to make good on pledges to reopen the Jerusalem consulate.