U.S. President Joe Biden launched his first Middle East visit Wednesday by attesting to the “bone-deep bond” between the United States and Israel as he landed in Tel Aviv. His three-day trip is part of a broader Middle East tour that includes stops in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia.
“I am proud to say that our relationship with the state of Israel is deeper and stronger, in my view, than it's ever been,” Biden said at Ben Gurion Airport. “With this visit, we're strengthening our connections even further. We've reaffirmed the unshakeable commitment of the United States to Israel's security, including partnering with Israel on the most cutting-edge defense systems in the world."
Biden was greeted by Israeli President Isaac Herzog, caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, whose coalition dissolved in June. He also met former prime minister— now the opposition leader — Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running against Lapid in an early election to be held in the next few months.
Israeli leaders were effusive in their remarks, with Herzog calling Biden, “our brother Joseph.”
"You have been a true friend and staunch supporter of Israel and the Jewish people, of our security and well-being, your entire life. In this visit, you will discuss the security challenges emanating directly from Iran and its proxies," he said.
Biden reiterated the long-standing U.S. policy supporting a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian people.
“Even though I know it's not in the near term, a two-state solution remains, in my view, the best way to ensure the future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Biden said.
To strengthen deterrence against Tehran, the U.S. is encouraging Israel’s further integration with its Arab neighbors, a continuation of the Trump-era deal known as the Abraham Accords, that normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and Arab countries.
Biden concluded his speech at the airport vowing the U.S. and Israel will "continue our shared, unending work to fight the poison of antisemitism wherever it raises its ugly head."
As Israel heads to its fifth election in three years, Biden’s aides insisted the political instability in Israel will not hinder U.S.–Israeli cooperation against the threat of a resurgent Iran.
“The relationship between the United States and Israel is not about who sits in what chair in Israel or in the United States. It is about a relationship between two countries and two peoples,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters aboard Air Force One on the way to Tel Aviv. “And so, despite the fact that Israel has entered election season, the president can have an equally robust engagement with the Israeli government and the Israeli public as he could if we were not in election season.”
At Ben Gurion, Biden was given a tour of Israel's advanced missile-defense capabilities developed in partnership with the U.S.
They include the Iron Dome, a system designed to intercept short-range missiles that has thwarted thousands of rockets fired by Gaza militants. The U.S. has contributed about $1.6 billion to the system, with another $1 billion recently approved by Congress. Biden also inspected a new laser-based system called the Iron Beam, which is not yet operational.
The U.S. is encouraging an integration of Israeli air defense systems with those of its Arab neighbors as it deals with the threat from Iran.
“I don't think we're referring necessarily to it as a Middle Eastern NATO,” said John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications in an interview with VOA. “What we're talking about — and we have been talking about this for quite some time — is a better, a more integrated air defense capability in the region. That is a networked opportunity, really, between nations that are living there and are dealing and sharing the increasing ballistic missile threat that Iran poses.”
Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said Iran looms large on Israel’s security horizon.
“Both from Hezbollah on its Lebanese border in the North, the Iranians now are able to project force from Iran into Israel,” she said, speaking via Zoom. “And then of course, now with Iran's partner in Yemen, the Houthis, they have long-range missiles that can threaten Israel from the south.”
The U.S.-Israeli cooperation extends beyond military ties, the administration said, announcing Wednesday that it will launch a new, high-level dialogue on technology in which the U.S. will partner with Israel to tackle challenges like pandemic preparedness, climate change and more.
“We pledge to boost our mutual innovation ecosystems, to deepen bilateral engagements, advance and protect critical and emerging technologies in accordance with our national interests, democratic principles and human rights, and to address geostrategic challenges,” the White House said in a statement.
Biden ended his first day in Israel by participating in a wreath-laying ceremony at Yad Vashem, the country's Holocaust Memorial.
On Thursday, he will hold bilateral meetings with Israeli leaders. Friday, he will meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. The administration seeks to reset relations with the Palestinian Authority after the Trump administration slashed aid and closed the American consulate in Jerusalem that served as the U.S. mission to the Palestinians.
But Palestinians say this presidential visit has yet to address their concerns. While Arab nations deepen engagement with Israel, clashes continue in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian territories occupied by Israel since 1967.
“Most of his time is spent in locations with Israeli officials and Israeli dignitaries,” said Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She spoke to VOA via Zoom from Ramallah. “The Palestinian-Israeli peacemaking front is really a very marginal issue for this president on this trip.”
Later, Biden will attend the GCC+3 Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) and Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. There, he will lay out his vision for U.S. engagement in the region.
Handshake or fist bump?
One question that has loomed is what level of engagement Biden will have with leaders of Saudi Arabia — a kingdom he once characterized as having “very little social redeeming value.”
Citing the rapidly spreading new coronavirus subvariant, White House officials appear to be laying the groundwork for Biden to avoid being photographed together with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom U.S. intelligence concluded approved the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and U.S. resident.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One the administration was being cautious about contact — especially handshakes.
“We're trying to minimize contact as much as possible where we can. And so, that is what the focus is going to be on this trip,” she said.
When asked about the nature of meetings with Saudi leaders, she said, “I'm not going to get into specifics.”
As Israeli officials stood on the red carpet with hands outstretched, Biden offered fist bumps. However, he appeared to have forgotten, and minutes later, shook hands with Bennett, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Biden did not wear a mask during his first day and did not limit physical contact, including hugging the two American Holocaust survivors at Yad Vashem.