Biden commits to Israel’s security as he embarks on Middle East tour

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The Guardian

Joe Biden has said that the US is committed to Israel’s security on arriving in Tel Aviv for the first leg of a three-day visit to the Middle East, a trip focused on deepening the majority Jewish state’s ties with the Arab world as the region faces a common foe in Iran.

The president was greeted by the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog and caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid on Air Force One’s arrival at Ben Gurion airport on Wednesday afternoon, fist-bumping rather than shaking hands with Israeli officials on the tarmac over what the White House said was concern over rising Covid cases.

Ahead of Biden’s trip, senior Israeli officials briefed reporters that the two countries will issue a broad-ranging communique titled the “Jerusalem Declaration”, which will take a tough stance on Iran’s nuclear programme, and reaffirm Israel’s right to defend itself.

In his opening remarks, Biden recalled that his first visit to the country had been as a young senator in 1973, just a few weeks before the Yom Kippur war with Egypt and Syria broke out. At that time, Israel and imperial Iran were still allies, and Egypt and Jordan were still hostile to the majority Jewish state.

“We’ll continue to advance Israel’s integration into the region and the relationship between the US and Israel is deeper and stronger in my view than it’s ever been,” the president said.

Air Force One will make a first direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia amid efforts to build a relationship between the Jewish state and the conservative Gulf kingdom, which does not officially recognise Israel’s existence.

For Biden’s 10th trip, and first as president, Israel is enjoying unprecedentedly positive relations with Arab countries: the Abraham Accords, Donald Trump’s major foreign policy achievement, normalised relations with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan two years ago.

On leaving Israel, Air Force One will make a first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia, in a sign of a gradual warming of relations with the conservative Gulf kingdom, which does not officially recognise Israel’s existence.

Like Israel, Saudi Arabia – the Sunni Muslim world’s geopolitical linchpin – fears the growing drone and missile capabilities of Iran and its proxies around the region.

Calling Biden’s visit a “journey of peace”, Herzog said: “Today, winds of peace are blowing from north Africa across the Mediterranean to the Gulf … from the Holy Land to the Hejaz.”

The Israeli-Palestinian peace process, however, remains moribund. In his remarks at the opening ceremony, Biden said he believed that a two-state solution is “the best way to ensure the future meaningful measure of freedom, prosperity and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians”, but that he knew it is “not in the near term”.

He will travel to Bethlehem in the occupied Palestinian territories to meet with Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, on Friday. Palestinian leaders have been angered by what they say is Washington’s failure to curb Israeli settlement building, as well as the administration’s unfulfilled promise to reopen a US consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem after Trump recognised the divided city as Israel’s capital – a decision Biden has not reversed.

The US president has also sidestepped a request to meet from the family of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, who was most likely killed as the result of Israeli sniper fire in May. The family – which accused Biden’s administration of siding with Israel after the state department said it would not push Israel to pursue a criminal investigation – has instead been invited for talks in Washington.

On Wednesday, Biden is scheduled to inspect Israel’s new Iron Beam anti-drone laser technology and visit Yad Vashem, the country’s official Holocaust memorial. He will hold one-on-one meetings with Lapid and Herzog on Thursday, as well as with Israel’s former longtime prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking a return to office in the country’s fifth election in five years this November.

Biden will also attend the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games, a sporting tournament for Israeli and Jewish athletes from around the world, on Thursday evening. The president’s stops in Israel and the Palestinian territories are widely viewed as of secondary importance to his trip to the Saudi city of Jeddah on Friday.

Biden called the kingdom a “pariah” over the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but has been forced to re-engage with the Saudi royal family as part of efforts to stabilise oil markets shaken by the war in Ukraine, and stop the kingdom’s drift towards China and Russia’s spheres of influence.

July 13, 2022 at 10:19PM Bethan McKernan in Jerusalem

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