Biden touts ‘bone deep’ bond between U.S., Israel, pledges to strengthen economic ties

U.S. President Joe Biden opened his first visit to the Mideast as president on Wednesday by declaring a “bone deep” bond between the United States and Israel and pledging to strengthen economic connections between the two countries going forward.

He did not mention one of the larger goals of his visit: assuring uneasy Israeli and Saudi Arabian officials that he is committed to preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.

“We have a full agenda over the next few days, because the relationship between Israel and the United States covers every issue that matters to our mutual future,” said Biden, who was making his 10th visit to Israel. “We are united in our shared values and our shared vision.”

Israeli officials said Iran’s quickly evolving nuclear program is at the top of their agenda for talks with the U.S. president. Biden made reviving the Iran nuclear deal, brokered by Barack Obama in 2015 and abandoned by Donald Trump in 2018, a key priority as he entered office.

Rapid gains by Iran

But indirect talks for the U.S. to re-enter the deal have stalled as Iran has made rapid gains in developing its nuclear program. That’s left the Biden administration increasingly pessimistic about resurrecting the deal, which placed significant restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Biden, centre, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid tour Israel’s defence system at Ben Gurion Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Wednesday. (Gil Cohen-Magen/Reuters)

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Israeli President Isaac Herzog made clear that Iran’s nuclear program will be a central focus in their discussions with Biden. And Herzog noted the “security challenges emanating directly from Iran and its proxies, threatening Israel and its neighbours and endangering our region.”

“We will discuss the need to renew a strong global coalition that will stop the Iranian nuclear program,” Lapid said

Because of concerns about a rise in COVID-19 cases, top White House officials said Biden would try to limit physical contact during the trip. At the arrival ceremony, Biden mostly skipped handshakes and offered Israeli officials fist bumps. But he made an exception by sharing a hearty handshake with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. The president also put his hand on the shoulders of several Israeli dignitaries.

Biden was hit with tough U.S. economic news as he arrived in Israel. Surging prices for gas, food and rent pushed U.S. inflation to a new four-decade high in June of 9.1 per cent, the government reported. Rising consumer prices are among factors contributing to Biden’s low public approval at home.

Biden briefed on missile defence

The president received a briefing on the country’s “Iron Dome” and new “Iron Beam” missile defence systems and visited the Yad Vashem memorial to Holocaust victims.

Biden, wearing a skullcap, was invited to rekindle the eternal flame in the memorial’s Hall of Remembrance. Two Marines placed a wreath on the stone crypt containing the ashes of Holocaust victims. Biden bent down to adjust it and placed his hand over his heart as the Marines saluted for a moment of silence.

Biden listened in silence as a cantor recited the remembrance prayer, before he greeted two Holocaust survivors, kissing the women on their cheeks. He had tears in his eyes as he engaged them in conversation.

The U.S. president is set to meet Thursday with Israeli officials and on Friday with Palestinian leaders.

Biden said he will emphasize in talks with Israel and Palestinian leaders his continued support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he acknowledged that it likely wouldn’t be feasible “in the near term.” Biden is spending two days in Jerusalem for talks with Israeli leaders before meeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday in the West Bank.

Biden added that a two state-solution is the best way to ensure a “future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike.” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said that Biden would not offer any proposals during the trip aimed at restarting talks.

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