U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Al Salman Royal Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. Photo courtesy of Saudi press Agency | License Photo
July 13 (UPI) -- President Joe Biden wrapped up the first of four days in the Middle East on Wednesday with a visit to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem where he vowed to continue the nations' "shared, unending work to fight the poison of anti-Semitism where it raises its ugly head."
The president participated in a wreath-laying ceremony and helped rekindle the eternal flame inside the Hall of Remembrance to honor the victims of the Holocaust.
Biden knelt down to speak with two American Holocaust survivors, Giselle Cycowicz and Rena Quint. The conversation, which lasted more than 10 minutes, included other Israeli leaders and brought the president to tears.
"It is a great honor to be back in my emotional home," Biden wrote in a note after visiting the Holocaust memorial. "We must never, ever forget -- because hatred is never defeated, it only hides. We must teach every generation that it can happen again unless we remember."
Earlier in the day, Biden was given a tour of Israel's air and missile defense systems at Ben-Gurion International Airport, including a display of the "Iron Beam," a high-powered laser mechanism capable of intercepting drones.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz presented Biden with a drone that was intercepted in a successful test in March. Gantz thanked the United States for its "steadfast support" for Israel's security and for approving $1 billion in funding to replenish the Iron Dome, a major part of Israel's defense against Iran and terror proxies in the Mideast.
"During your tenure and with your administration, we have made groundbreaking strides in strengthening regional security cooperation -- we are extremely appreciative of your leadership," Gantz told Biden.
"I am certain that under your leadership and together with U.S. security organizations, we will continue developing defense cooperation on land, in the air, in the maritime arena and in the cyberspace," Gantz said.
The next few days of President Biden's Middle East tour will take him from Israel to Saudi Arabia as he looks to reaffirm relationships in the region and find solutions to complex issues, such as Israeli defense and Iran.
Biden is set to meet with 11 regional leaders during stops in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. In Saudi Arabia, he will attend the Summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council with leaders from Egypt, Iraq and Jordan.
Biden began the trip Wednesday in Israel, where voters are facing national elections for the fifth time in less than four years. The Israeli Parliament voted to dissolve last month after its ruling coalition effectively fell apart. Yair Lapid took over as caretaker prime minister.
Lapid welcomed Biden on his arrival in Tel Aviv and the U.S. leader said it was an honor to visit the "independent state of Israel."
"This is my 10th visit. Every chance to return to this great country -- where the ancient roots of the Jewish people date back to biblical times -- is a blessing," Biden said in his first remarks after arrival.
The president emphasized that the relationship between the United States and Israel is "bone deep."
"We invest in each other. We dream together. We are part of what has always been the objective we have both had. I have been part of that as a senator, as a vice president, and quite frankly before that," he added.
"Now 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.
"With this visit, we are strengthening our connections even further. We have reaffirmed the unshakable commitment of the United States to Israel's security -- including partnering with Israel on the most cutting-edge defense systems in the world."
National security adviser Jake Sullivan said Tuesday the Middle East is "more stable" now than it was when Biden came into office in early 2021 and that the United States hopes to foster that stability. The trip is Biden's first to the Middle East as president.
"The Middle East is deeply interwoven with the rest of the world," Sullivan told reporters. "And if we can act now to create a more peaceful and stable region, it will pay dividends for the American national interests and for the American people for years to come."
A senior administration official said last month that Biden's visit would largely focus on Israel's defense capabilities, noting that he would likely visit an area where the Iron Dome Missile Defense System is utilized. Biden's administration dedicated $1 billion to replenish it after the Gaza conflict.
Biden will also look to discuss Israel's integration into the region following the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020, which normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, officials said.
On Thursday, Biden is scheduled to meet with Yapid and the two will give a joint news conference. He will also meet with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. athletes who are in Israel for the Maccabi Games. At a reception hosted by Herzog, Biden will receive the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor.
Also Thursday, Biden will participate in the first leaders meeting of the I2U2 group, which will include representatives of Israel, India and the United Arab Emirates.
During the visit, Israeli leaders are expected to press Biden on the status of negotiations to renew the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Israel has opposed from the start. U.S. officials said late last month that they expected the negotiations to resume.
Israel has said it opposes any agreement that allows Iran to perform nuclear research. The Obama-era pact -- which also included the European Union, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- agrees to ease economic sanctions against Tehran in exchange for Iran restricting its nuclear research to the laboratory.
Cars drive past American and Israeli flags in downtown Jerusalem on Monday ahead of the visit by U.S. President Joe Biden. Photo by Debbie Hill/UP
Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal, but Biden has indicated that he intends to rejoin the agreement. Iran has taken a number of steps that violate the agreement since the U.S. withdrawal in 2018.
Later Thursday, Biden is scheduled to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank. He is seeking to repair relations with Palestinians that the White House says were "nearly severed" under Trump.
In the West Bank, Biden is expected to announce resumed U.S. funding for Palestinian hospitals that was cut off by Trump and commit to finding a two-state peace deal between Israel and Palestinians that would create an independent Palestinian state.
Some Palestinian activists are expected to protest Biden's visit in Ramallah in the West Bank on Thursday and his meeting with Abbas.
"The Palestinian issue is not at the top of Biden's agenda," an unnamed Palestinian official told The Jerusalem Post. "Ignoring the Palestinian issue will only increase tensions and undermine security and stability in the region."
A poster shared online among some activists decried the United States as the "head of the snake" and said "America does not liberate people but only enslaves them."
To conclude his trip, Biden will travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to participate in a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.
At the summit, Biden is expected to discuss strengthening a cease-fire between Iran-backed troops and Saudi-led forces in the seven-year civil war in Yemen that has killed thousands.
The White House said another issue that might receive attention during the four-day visit is "energy security." Biden is venturing into an oil-rich region at a time of high gasoline prices in the United States.
Before returning to the United States, Biden is also set to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father King Salman -- plans that have met with criticism.
A new street sign for Jamal Khashoggi
Way is seen in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington on June 15. The street was named to honor Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi journalist and writer for The Washington Post who was killed in 2018. File Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
During his 2020 campaign for president, Biden promised to treat Saudi leaders as "the pariahs that they are" in response to the disappearance and death of American resident and Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, who was often critical of Saudi leadership, went missing in October 2018 after visiting a Saudi consulate in Turkey to obtain documentation to get married. His body was never found, but Western intelligence, including the CIA, believe that the Saudi crown prince MBS ordered Khashoggi's death. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence made the same conclusion in 2021.
Some authorities have said they believe Khashoggi was killed shortly after he entered the consulate, his body was dismembered and the remains were possibly dissolved in acid.
While the White House said Biden will seek to work with Saudi Arabia to advance stability, peace and a "more integrated region," a senior administration official added that the president is "not going to change his views on human rights."