Biden heads to Israel on first Middle East tour as US president
US President Joe Biden was Wednesday to start a Middle East tour in Israel, where leaders will urge tougher action against their common foe Iran, before a delicate stop in oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
The 79-year-old president's visit to Jeddah on Friday will be the focus of the tour, after Biden 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 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.
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 what analysts call a "shadow war" of attacks and sabotage.
Israel's caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who took office less than two weeks ago and faces new elections this year, has said talks "will focus first and foremost on the issue of Iran".
- Jerusalem to Bethlehem -
Moments after Biden lands, Israel's military will 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 early Wednesday, with major roads set to close as Air Force One, which has left Washington, touches down at around 1230 GMT.
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 United States 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 elections on November 1, the fifth in less than four years.
Biden is scheduled to have a short meeting on Thursday with an old acquaintance -- Israel's former prime minister and current opposition leader 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 prominent 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 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.
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