[kitsch] Biden greeted as old friend in Israel at start of Middle East tour

U.S. President Joe Biden, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz and Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid (Gil Cohen-Magen - Reuters)

Steve Holland

Reuters  /  July 13, 2022

TEL AVIV – U.S. 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.

Landing at Ben Gurion Airport, whose tarmac he first trod in 1973 as a senator, Biden bumped fists with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog and, in a speech, described the connection between the two nations as “bone-deep”.

“You do not need to be a Jew to be a Zionist,” Biden added, voicing support for the ideology behind Israel’s foundation on lands with ancient Jewish roots, and which is deeply resented by many Palestinians.

Biden also reiterated U.S. desire for negotiations, stalled since 2014, to create a Palestinian state on Israeli-occupied territory, calling this two state solution “the best hope” for both peoples.

Biden’s first visit to Israel as president is his tenth of a long political career. Israel has stepped carefully around disputes 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 “one of the best friends Israel has ever known”.

Biden will spend two days in Jerusalem before meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday in the occupied West Bank.

He will then fly directly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for talks with Saudi officials and to attend a summit of Gulf allies.

U.S. officials say the trip could produce more steps toward normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, historic foes but also two of America’s strongest allies in the turbulent region.

That would build on the establishing or upgrading of Israeli relations with United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco under a U.S. initiative in 2020 dubbed the Abraham Accords, after the biblical patriarch revered by both Jews and Muslims.

In a similar vein, Herzog played on Biden’s first name, deeming him “both a visionary and a leader” like the biblical Joseph. Biden was “truly amongst family” in Israel, Herzog said.

Biden’s trip aims to promote regional stability, deepen Israel’s integration in the region and counter Iranian influence and aggression by Russia and China.

U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated Washington’s desire for the reopening of a Jerusalem consulate shut down by the former U.S. 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,” Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force 1. Israel deems all of Jerusalem its capital – a status not recognized abroad – and does not consent to the consulate reopening.

Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said he saw nothing new from Biden on Palestinian issues.

“Biden’s visit aims to integrate the occupation state in the Arab region and build a new alliance against Iran. When it comes to the promises President Biden made during his electoral campaign and early in office, we don’t see any practical formula to reflect that on the ground,” he added.

Pressure over Saudi visit

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.

He said details about a price cap on oil from Russia were still being worked out with European partners and said signs of a deepening relationship between Russia and Iran should be seen as a threat.

A centerpiece of Biden’s visit will be talks in Jeddah with Saudi leaders including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, accused by the U.S. intelligence community of being behind the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The meeting is a reversal of Biden’s previous position of making Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s death. How the White House handles the optics of the meeting and whether photos will be released of it will be closely watched. 

Aides say he will bring up human rights concerns while in Saudi Arabia, but he has nonetheless drawn fire from a wide array of critics.

“Biden needs the Saudis to increase their oil production to help keep global energy prices in check,” wrote Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan in an opinion piece on Tuesday. “The trip sends the message that the United States is willing to look the other way when its commercial interests are at stake.”

Outreach to Palestinians

Biden’s talks with Abbas will be the first between a U.S. president and a Palestinian leader since the Obama administration. The Palestinians boycotted the Trump administration over a peace plan they saw as biased against them.

Tensions are high between Israel and the Palestinians over the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May during an Israeli army raid in the West Bank.

Palestinians say she was killed by Israeli troops deliberately; Israel denies this. Washington has concluded she was killed by a bullet from the direction of an Israeli position but it has no evidence it was intentional.

Her family had accused the Biden administration of providing impunity for Israel over her killing, and asked to meet Biden during his trip to the region this week. U.S. 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.

They also want the United States to remove the PLO from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, block changes to rules for worship at Jerusalem sites revered by Muslims and Jews, and curb Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Israeli officials said Biden’s visit would work towards what they called a Jerusalem Declaration on the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership.

One official said the joint declaration “takes a very clear and united stand against Iran, its nuclear program and its aggression across the region and commits both countries to using all elements of their national power against the Iranian nuclear threat.”

Biden is likely to face questions from Israel and from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates about the wisdom of his attempts to revive a nuclear deal with Iran that was abandoned by his predecessor Trump.

At Ben Gurion Airport, Biden received a briefing on Israel’s U.S.-supported Iron Dome defense system and a new laser-enabled system called Iron Beam. He will also pay his respects at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to Holocaust victims in World War Two.

Israel has been jolted by internal political strife with previous prime minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition collapsing in June.

This has left Lapid as caretaker prime minister until a new election in November, the fifth in less than four years. He and Biden will give a joint news conference on Thursday.

Biden will also meet past prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now the opposition leader. Netanyahu was a close ally of Trump and a critic of the Obama administration when Biden served as vice president.

Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mary Milliken, Howard Goller, William Maclean, Philippa Fletcher, Peter Graff