TEL AVIV (REUTERS) - United States President Joe Biden arrived on Wednesday (July 13) 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, Mr 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,” Mr Biden said, voicing support for the ideology behind Israel’s foundation on lands with ancient Jewish roots, and which is deeply resented by many Palestinians.
Mr Biden also reiterated US 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.
His first visit to Israel as president is his tenth in 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,” Mr Lapid said in a speech, calling Mr Biden “one of the best friends Israel has ever known”.
Mr 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 (July 15) for talks with Saudi officials and to attend a summit of Gulf allies.
US officials say the trip - Mr 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 Mr Biden will fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia "encapsulates a lot of the dynamics that have been evolving over the last months.”
Mr 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.
There will be no attempt to restart the long-stalled peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
However, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Mr Biden would restate his commitment to the so-called two state solution, with a future Palestinian state existing alongside Israel.
He said Washington wanted to see a consulate for the Palestinians in Jerusalem, a reference to a mission shut down by the former president Donald Trump.
Palestinians 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," Mr Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force 1.
Mr Wasel Abu Youssef, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), said in response: "It's much ado about nothing.
Pressure over Saudi visit
Mr 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 Mr Biden's visit will be talks in Jeddah with Saudi leaders including Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, accused by the US intelligence community of being behind the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The meeting is a reversal of Mr Biden's previous position of making Saudi Arabia a "pariah" for the Khashoggi 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."
Mr Biden receive a briefing from Israeli defence officials on the US-supported Iron Dome defence system and a new laser-enabled system called Iron Beam.
He will 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 Mr Lapid as caretaker prime minister until new elections are held later this year, and Biden will meet with him.
The pair will hold a joint news conference on Thursday (July 14).
Mr Biden will also meet past prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, now the opposition leader.
Outreach to Palestinians
Mr Biden's talks with Mr Abbas will mark the highest level of face-to-face contact between the United States and the Palestinians since Mr 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 Akleh in May.
Her family, having accused the US of providing impunity for Israel over her killing, has asked to meet Mr Biden during his trip to the region this week.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had spoken with the family, Mr Sullivan said, and invited them to a meeting.
The Palestinians, while appreciating the resumption of ties under Mr Biden, want him to make good on pledges to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem.
They also want the United States to remove the PLO from the US list of terrorist organisations, preserve the historic status quo in Jerusalem and curb Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank.
Israeli officials said Mr Biden's visit will include what they called the Jerusalem Declaration on the US-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."
Mr 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 the Iran nuclear deal.