Biden arrives in Middle East, calling US-Israel ties "bone deep"

Jerusalem, Israel - US President Joe Biden began his first trip in office to the Middle East by pledging Israel his country's unwavering friendship, but many eyes are already looking ahead to his next stop at the end of the week in Saudi Arabia.

US President Joe Biden (l.) and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid participate in a bilateral meeting in Jerusalem.
US President Joe Biden (l.) and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid participate in a bilateral meeting in Jerusalem.  © REUTERS

"The relationship is deeper and stronger, in my view, than it's ever been," Biden said shortly after touching down at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

"The connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep," he said.

Biden was welcomed by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and new Prime Minister Yair Lapid in a formal ceremony after his arrival.

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"Today the winds of peace are blowing from North Africa across the Mediterranean to the Gulf," Herzog said, in a reference to Israel's closer ties with select Arab nations.

Biden's visit is also to discuss the threat posed by Iran and its allies to Israel and its neighbors, Herzog said. Biden has been a "true friend" and staunch supporter of Israel and the Jewish people throughout his life, the Israeli politician said.

Biden to express support for two-state solution

Biden lays a wreath of flowers at the Hall of Remembrance of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem.
Biden lays a wreath of flowers at the Hall of Remembrance of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem.  © Menahem KAHANA / POOL / AFP

Biden started in Jerusalem to kick off his first visit to the Middle East since taking office 18 months ago, though he has been many times before.

Biden is also set for talks with Herzog and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, as well as with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Friday.

After his arrival, Biden was shown the Iron Dome missile defense system, which Washington has helped to fund.

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In the evening, he went to the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and laid a wreath in commemoration of the victims. He also met two Holocaust survivors. At the end of the visit, he signed the guest book of the memorial.

During his West Bank meeting with Abbas, Biden is expected to underscore his support for a two-state solution, which he believes will offer the Palestinian people an equal degree of security, freedom, and opportunity.

But the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians that could lead to such an outcome has been effectively dead since 2014, with Biden's visit not expected to revive it.

Biden stirs controversy with visit to Saudi Arabia

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is accused of ordering the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is accused of ordering the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.  © REUTERS

On Friday, the US president moves on to the even more controversial part of the trip in Saudi Arabia, where he plans to meet the kingdom's leaders in Jeddah and attend a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Barely four months before congressional elections, Biden is under enormous pressure back in the US because of rapidly surging fuel prices. Saudi Arabia is one of the world's largest oil producers.

Biden rejects accusations that his trip could subordinate human rights to demand for cheaper oil.

During the 2019 election campaign, Biden promised to hold the leadership in Riyadh accountable for the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was critical of the Saudi government.

At the time, Biden had pledged to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah."

Khashoggi was killed by a hit squad in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in autumn 2018. US intelligence agencies hold Saudi Crown Prince Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the de facto ruler of the kingdom – responsible.

Biden shares his views on Iran

Biden said he would use military force "as a last resort" to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Biden said he would use military force "as a last resort" to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  © REUTERS

In an interview with Israel's Channel 12 that aired on Wednesday evening, Biden was asked about another thorny subject: Iran.

The Islamic Republic is Israel's arch-enemy. Israel has threatened to take military action against Iran if it was needed to prevent Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

Biden said "Yes" when asked if he remained committed to keeping Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard Corps on a terrorist blacklist – even if it meant the end of talks on reviving the Iran nuclear deal.

Negotiations between Iran and the other parties to save the tattered 2015 agreement – China, Germany, France, Britain, Russia, and the United States – have been stalled for months.

The deal aims to curb Iran's atomic ambitions in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions. Biden said his predecessor Donald Trump made a "gigantic mistake" by pulling the US out of the deal in 2018.

Iran has been steadily breaching the terms of the accord, including accelerating its enrichment of uranium to near weapons grade.

One of the hurdles to reviving the deal is said to be differences between the leadership in Tehran and the US government over the terrorist label Washington places on the Revolutionary Guards, which is a faction of Iranian armed forces.

Biden also told Channel 12 he would be willing to use force "as a last resort" to prevent Iran from possessing nuclear weapons.

"The only thing worse than the Iran that exists now is an Iran with nuclear weapons," Biden said.

Cover photo: REUTERS

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