WASHINGTON — The schedule for US President Joe Biden’s upcoming two-day trip to Israel and the West Bank was all but finalized on Thursday, and while it will be the longtime lawmaker’s 10th trip to the Jewish state, the itinerary will include a number of firsts for the US leader.
Biden will land Wednesday afternoon at Ben Gurion Airport, where he will be greeted by Prime Minister Yair Lapid in an official welcome ceremony.
While Lapid may only be a caretaker prime minister, and only met Biden once in 2013, he will be looking to build rapport with the US president in order to strengthen his political bona fides ahead of the November 1 election.
Biden will then tour several Israeli security systems with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, likely at the Palmachim air force base in central Israel, near the airport. The show-and-tell will include an Iron Dome missile defense battery, in a nod to US efforts to grant Israel an additional $500 million in replacement batteries for the system after last year’s Gaza war.
Biden’s tour will include the Iron Beam laser rocket defense system, which is designed to work in tandem with systems like Iron Dome and shoot down smaller projectiles.
The president will also announce his approval for the US military-industrial complex to begin talks with Israeli counterparts about purchasing Iron Beam, a senior US official told The Times of Israel Wednesday.
While there have been reports of efforts to create an integrated air defense network for Israel to cooperate with its Arab allies against Iran, the senior US official said the initiative is still in the works, but that Biden will take a look at some of the technologies Israel exports to some of its regional allies in a “nod” to such cooperation.
Following the weapons tour, Biden will head to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem for a brief tour. Biden has prided himself on promoting Holocaust education and often notes his decision to take each of his children to visit concentration camps in Germany when they were teens to learn firsthand about the horrors of the Nazi genocide.
On Thursday morning, Biden will hold a meeting with Lapid after which the two will deliver statements to the press. Also in attendance for part of this sit-down will be Lapid’s predecessor, Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who met Biden twice during his year as premier.
No major announcement from either side is expected. Biden is slated to reserve most of his remarks regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for his Friday meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Biden and Lapid will then connect to computers for a high-level meeting of the new I2U2 forum with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United Arab Emirates President Mohamed bin Zayed. The leaders will discuss “the food security crisis and other areas of cooperation across hemispheres where the UAE and Israel serve as important innovation hubs,” a senior Biden official said last month.
Biden will then meet with President Isaac Herzog, followed by a short session with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, which was added to the schedule last month in order to avoid the perception that the US was picking sides ahead of the November 1 Israeli election.
Biden has known the Likud leader for several decades but the two have sparred politically, particularly during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. Last year, Netanyahu posted a video in which he mocked Biden, regurgitating a debunked claim that the American leader fell asleep during an earlier meeting with Bennett at the White House.
The president will finish the day by speaking at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Jewish Olympic games alongside Lapid and Herzog.
On Friday morning, Biden will head to the Augusta Victoria Hospital on East Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, according to an Israeli source familiar with the matter. It will be the first visit by a sitting US president to the largely Palestinian section of the capital outside of the Old City.
First Lady Jill Biden visited the same hospital in 2010 and announced the donation of new equipment for the oncology ward. The stop is seen as a nod to Palestinians, who view the area as the capital of their future state. Perhaps for that reason, Israeli officials have been seeking to join Biden on the visit, the Israeli source said.
The hospital network is not formally run by the PA and works with Israeli health providers, but it also plays a key role in the Palestinian health care system. Much of the network’s operating budget comes from treating Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, for which the PA foots the bill.
The Biden administration will use the opportunity to announce a significant funding initiative for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, a senior Israeli official said, adding that the initiative has been pushed by US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides.
In addition to the new US funding, Biden will be announcing similar donations to the hospital network from several Gulf states, a Middle Eastern diplomat said.
Biden will then travel to Bethlehem for a meeting with Abbas. The atmosphere may be clouded by the Monday announcement by the US that it did not find Israel to have intentionally killed Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh in clashes that broke out during an IDF raid of Jenin on May 11. The announcement was made following a forensic analysis of the lethal bullet that wound up being too damaged to make a definitive conclusion regarding who was responsible, the State Department said, sparking outrage from Ramallah, which insists the Palestinian-American reporter was killed intentionally by Israel.
Still, Biden will announce alongside Abbas a package of steps aimed at strengthening the PA, the senior US official said. Some of these “deliverables” will be US initiatives and others will be Israeli ones that Biden will announce on behalf of Lapid, who prefers keeping some distance from the concessions. Among the US gestures is one related to the Palestinian economy that Ramallah has long requested, the official said, declining to elaborate further as the matter is still being finalized.
Biden then will head back to Ben Gurion Airport, from where he will make a rare direct flight to Saudi Arabia to attend the GCC+3 summit on Saturday in Jeddah with the leaders of the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE along with Iraq, Egypt and Jordan.
In an initiative it is hoping to solidify before the president lands, the US is working to finalize the transfer of a pair of Red Sea islands from Egyptian to Saudi control as part of an agreement that would see Riyadh take a series of steps to normalize ties with Israel, an Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel on Wednesday.
The normalization measures would include Saudi Arabia opening its airspace to Israeli flights to the Far East in addition to rolling out direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia for Muslim pilgrims, the Middle East diplomat said, confirming reporting in the Axios news site.
The US National Security Council’s Middle East director Brett McGurk flew to Saudi Arabia this week in a last-ditch effort to close the deal in time, but it was unclear whether he would succeed or if the announcement would have to wait until after Biden’s trip, the Arab diplomat said.
Biden will also discuss broader regional cooperation efforts, maintaining the ceasefire between warring parties in Yemen and the global energy crisis.
The president has sought to downplay the fact that the GCC+3 meeting is being hosted in Saudi Arabia after he pledged during his election campaign to treat Riyadh like a “pariah” over its human rights record.
But global developments over the past year — namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — have led Biden to shift his approach to the Gulf kingdom, given its centrality to the oil market and potential for furthering Israel’s integration into the region.