President Joe Biden touted America’s “unshakeable commitment” to Israeli security on Wednesday after landing in Tel Aviv on his first trip to the Middle East as president.
The trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia is intended to boost America’s influence in the region and solidify the coalition of nations aligned with the United States as competitors like China boost their investment in the Middle East.
“This is actually an opportunity to stabilize the U.S. presence, the U.S. commitments to these countries,” Daniel Shapiro, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, said on a press call previewing the trip. “I think that’s a real strategic opportunity that this trip represents. As the key partner in this emerging coalition, it also positions the United States to gain clearer commitments from those partners about their alignment with U.S. interest when those are challenged by our global strategic rivals, China and Iran.”
Shortly after landing on Wednesday, Biden received a briefing from the Israeli minister of defense on the Iron Dome and Iron Beam air defense systems, projects developed and funded with the United States. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz thanked BIden for the “record U.S. security assistance,” including $1 billion to replenish Iron Dome interceptors, the Times of Israel reported.
“As president, I’m 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. “With this visit, we are strengthening our connections even further.”
On Thursday, Biden will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then take a Friday meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, according to a White House schedule. Biden is also expected to teleconference with the leaders of Israel, India, and the United Arab Emirates in the first meeting of the I2U2 group on Thursday.
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said meeting with the variety of Israeli leaders, especially as the country prepares for an election in November, is an intentional step to engage with different viewpoints across the Israeli political spectrum.
“One of the key messages that we’re sending on this trip at this time is that 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,” Sullivan told reporters Wednesday.
Some analysts worried the heavy emphasis on security in an effort to build allies against Iran could end up backfiring, especially as the United States deals with historic inflation and skyrocketing gas prices.
“I think this trip will end up building a basic counter-Iran war council heavily influenced by Israeli strategy,” Karen Young, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said on a press call. “The risk there is that if we increasingly mount towards a confrontation stance with Iran, our energy-market problems today will pale in comparison to what could come.”
On Friday, Biden will fly to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where Biden is expected to meet with King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The meeting with the crown prince, a controversial political figure in part because he allegedly ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is the most-watched event on Biden’s itinerary.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Wednesday that the White House is “taking precautions” around COVID-19 during the trip, including “trying to minimize contact as much as possible.” The president, however, held the Congressional picnic at the White House on Tuesday, where he was seen shaking hands and taking selfies with lawmakers, and also shook hands with Netanyahu on Wednesday after offering a fist bump to other officials.
This prompted questions about whether the policy of minimizing contact was really a cover for the president to not shake hands with the crown prince. Jean-Pierre denied that.
“No, no, no,” she said. “You’re asking me if he’s going to shake hands or not. We are saying that we’re going to try to minimize contact as much as possible. But also, there are precautions that we are taking because this is up to his doctor.”