Reuters -By Steve Holland
Israeli President Isaac Herzog looks on as Prime Minister Yair Lapid bumps fists with U.S. President Joe Biden during a welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, Israel, July 13, 2022. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
JERUSALEM, July 13 (Reuters) – Israel embraced U.S. President Joe Biden as an old friend on Wednesday at the start of a high-stakes visit dominated by efforts to bring Israel closer to Saudi Arabia and persuade Washington’s Gulf allies to pump more oil.
ISRAEL-SAUDI NORMALISATION ‘TO TAKE A LONG TIME’
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. read more
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. “The trip sends the message that the United States is willing to look the other way when its commercial interests are at stake.”
Biden’s talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud 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 perceived pro-Israel bias.
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. read more
The Palestinians, while appreciating the resumption of ties under Biden, 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 about the wisdom of his attempts to revive a nuclear deal with Iran that was abandoned by 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 also paid respects at Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to Holocaust victims, wiping a tear as he spoke to two women who survived the World War Two genocide.
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 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
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