US president begins his first ‘Middle East tour’

US President Joe Biden started a Middle East tour on Wednesday in Israel, where leaders will urge tougher action against their common foe Iran, before a delicate stop in oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

Biden’s visit to Jeddah on Friday will be the focus of the tour, after he branded Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over the 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Air Force One will make a first direct flight from Israel to Saudi Arabia amid efforts to forge a relationship between the Jewish state and the conservative Gulf kingdom that does not recognise Israel’s existence.

Before that, Biden, 79, will meet Israeli leaders seeking to broaden cooperation against Iran, and Palestinian leaders angered by what they describe as Washington’s failure to curb Israeli aggression.

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BIDEN VISITS ISRAEL

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.

Israel and Iran were allies then, but they are now sworn enemies that have been engaged in a “shadow war” of attacks and sabotage.

Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, who greeted Biden at the airport, has said talks “will focus first and foremost on the issue of Iran”.

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

“If the visits of the American officials 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.

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Jerusalem to Bethlehem

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 is staunchly opposed to a restoration of the frayed 2015 deal that gave Tehran sanctions relief.

Israeli police fanned out across central Jerusalem on Wednesday, with major roads closed as Air Force One touched down.

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.

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 US as an honest broker in the conflict.

“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, meaning the visit could end up deepening Palestinian frustration.

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.

Normalisation steps?

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”.

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

Israel hopes the visit will also signal the start of a process toward building diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia.

Israel expanded its regional reach with US backing in 2020, when it formalised ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco — breakthroughs that came after its peace accord with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

While there is no expectation of Saudi Arabia recognising the Jewish state in the immediate future, a senior Israeli official said Tuesday that Biden’s visit marked an important step toward that goal.

© Agence France-Presse

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