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.

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 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.

US president to meet Palestinian counterpart today before flying to Jeddah for talks with Saudi officials

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.

US officials say the trip 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.

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

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.

However, Iran said Biden’s trip to the Middle East will not bring about security for Israel, the Islamic republic’s regional arch-enemy. “If the visits of the American officials to the countries of the region are to strengthen the position of the Zionist regime and to normalise the relations of this regime with some countries, their efforts will not create security for the Zionists in any way,” President Ebrahim Raisi said in a statement, referring to Israel.

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.

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

Published in Dawn, July 14th, 2022

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