Morning Chronicle - Biden visits Israel on first Middle East tour as US president

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Biden visits Israel on first Middle East tour as US president
Biden visits Israel on first Middle East tour as US president / Photo: MANDEL NGAN - AFP

Biden visits Israel on first Middle East tour as US president

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday kicked off a Middle East tour in Israel where both sides vowed to deepen the Jewish state's integration in the region as they face their common foe Iran.

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Biden -- whose first regional tour since taking office will also take him to Saudi Arabia -- pledged strong backing for Israel, which has forged ties with several Arab states in recent years and hopes to do so with Riyadh as well.

"We'll continue to advance Israel's integration into the region," Biden said after Air Force One touched down at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv to a red-carpet welcome.

Israel's caretaker prime minister Yair Lapid said that "we will discuss building a new security and economy architecture with the nations of the Middle East", following US-brokered accords in 2020 with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco.

"And we will discuss the need to renew a strong global coalition that will stop the Iranian nuclear programme," he added, amid ongoing efforts by world powers to salvage Iran's frayed 2015 nuclear deal, which Israel opposes.

Biden's visit to Saudi Arabia on Friday will be the major focus of the tour, after he branded the oil-rich kingdom a "pariah" over the 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The trip is seen as part of efforts to stabilise oil markets rattled by the war in Ukraine, by re-engaging with a long-time key US strategic ally and major energy supplier.

Air Force One will make a first direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia amid efforts to build ties between the Jewish state and the conservative Gulf kingdom, which does not recognise Israel's existence.

- Palestinian anger -

Moments after Biden landed, Israel's military was to show him its new Iron Beam system, an anti-drone laser it claims is crucial to countering Iran's fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Israel insists it will do whatever is necessary to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions, and remains staunchly opposed to a restoration of the 2015 deal that gave Tehran sanctions relief.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi warned earlier Wednesday that if Biden's goal on the trip was to bolster Israel's security, he was destined to fail.

If US visits "to the countries of the region are to strengthen the position of the Zionist regime... their efforts will not create security for the Zionists in any way," Raisi said, referring to Israel.

Israel has raised 1,000 flags across Jerusalem to welcome the US leader, who has not reversed former president Donald Trump's controversial decision to recognise the city as the capital of the Jewish state.

Biden, 79, will also meet Palestinian leaders angered by what they describe as Washington's failure to curb Israeli aggression.

The persistent frustrations of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy are nothing new for Biden, who first visited the region in 1973 after being elected to the Senate.

Palestinians claim Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital and, ahead of the visit, accused Biden of failing to make good on his pledge to restore the United States as an honest broker in the conflict.

- Jerusalem to Bethlehem -

"We only hear empty words and no results," said Jibril Rajoub, a leader of the secular Fatah movement of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.

Biden will meet Abbas in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem on Friday, but there is no expectation of bold announcements toward a fresh peace process.

Israel for now is again mired in political gridlock ahead of a November 1 parliamentary election, the fifth in less than four years.

Biden is scheduled to have a short meeting Thursday with Israel's former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will try to reclaim power in the upcoming polls.

US-Palestinian ties have been strained by the May killing of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh while she was covering an Israeli army raid in the West Bank.

The United Nations has concluded the Palestinian-American journalist was killed by Israeli fire. Washington has agreed this was likely, but also said there was no evidence the killing was intentional.

Abu Akleh's family has voiced outrage over the Biden administration's "abject response" to her death, and the White House has not commented on their request to meet the president in Jerusalem.

Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Wednesday that Secretary of State Antony Blinken "has invited the family to the United States to be able to sit down and engage with him directly".