Biden Lands in Israel With Security Concerns Setting the Tone

On a four-day trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, President Biden has far less leverage to shape events than he would like. Worries about Iran are at the forefront of the visit’s start.


As his Saudi meeting nears, Biden tries a ‘no handshakes’ Covid policy, but not for long.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

JERUSALEM — President Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday for a four-day Middle East visit that will focus on slowing down Iran’s nuclear program, getting oil to American gas pumps and improving relations with Saudi Arabia.

As Mr. Biden disembarked from Air Force One, Israeli officials including President Isaac Herzog, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett were waiting to greet him, alongside the U.S. ambassador, Thomas R. Nides.

After stepping out from the plane, Mr. Biden descended the stairs and fist-bumped a waiting official as Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken followed behind. The national anthems of both countries were then played.

In his welcoming speech, Mr. Lapid called Mr. Biden’s visit both historic and deeply personal.

“It is historic, because it expresses the unbreakable bond between our countries,” Mr. Lapid said, adding: “It is also a personal visit, because your relationship with Israel has always been personal. You once defined yourself as a Zionist. You said that you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist. You were right, and in your case: a great Zionist and one of the best friends Israel has ever known.”

Mr. Lapid also confirmed that the two leaders would discuss Iran and their joint efforts to enhance cooperation among Middle Eastern countries. Once isolated in the region, Israel is increasingly involved in regional diplomacy, after landmark diplomatic deals with three Arab countries in 2020 — and officials hope that further progress will be made during Mr. Biden’s visit.

Wearing aviator sunglasses, Mr. Biden said it was “an honor to once again stand with friends and visit the independent Jewish state of Israel.”

He recalled visiting Israel as a young senator for the first time in 1973 — a few months before the Arab-Israeli war, also known as the Yom Kippur War — and speaking with Golda Meir, the first of the 11 Israeli prime ministers Mr. Biden has so far met.

On Wednesday, the American leader restated his strong backing for Israel and his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after criticism that his administration has not prioritized the issue.

“We’ll discuss my continued support, even though I know it’s not in a new term, for a two-state solution that remains in my view the best way to ensure the future of equal measure of freedom, prosperity and democracy for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” Mr. Biden said.

Before his arrival, the Israeli government had made several small gestures to the Palestinians, including granting some new work permits for Gazans. But there are few expectations that Mr. Biden’s visit will have a significant effect on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, cut a peripheral figure at the welcoming ceremony. Now out of office, he is the leader of opposition and will have only a brief meeting with the president on Thursday.

But the two men have a warm if often fraught relationship that goes back four decades, and Mr. Biden made a point of seeking out Mr. Netanyahu during a group photo for Israeli and American officials. Mr. Biden gave Mr. Netanyahu a long, warm handclasp, and both men gave the impression of being happy to see each other.

At the end of the reception ceremony, Israel’s current prime minister, Mr. Lapid, joked about his and Mr. Biden’s respective trajectories since an earlier meeting between the two in Washington.

He told Mr. Biden: “I don’t know if you remember, but eight years ago we met at the White House when you were vice president. You said to me, ‘If only I had hair like yours, I would be president,’ to which I answered, ‘And if only I had your height, I would be prime minister.’”

Naftali Bennett, left, introduced the Iron Beam as prime minister in May. He has called the new laser-based air defense system a “game changer.”
Amos Ben Gershom/Israel Government Press Office

Among the weapons that Israel displayed for President Biden on Wednesday was a prototype of a new laser defense system that Israeli leaders have described as a strategic game changer for the region.

The weapon, known as the Iron Beam, is a result of two decades of research and experimentation. And while it may still be a few years away from deployment, officials say the laser will be able to intercept rockets, mortar shells, drones and anti-tank missiles.

Israel has long been a pioneer in air defense, with significant and continued American support. The display of the multi-tiered air defense arsenal put on for Mr. Biden provided an opportunity to present the products of that cooperation and to showcase Israeli military technologies to the world.

Iron Beam, which Mr. Biden viewed at Ben-Gurion Airport, is intended to complement, not replace, Iron Dome and David’s Sling, Israel’s short- and medium-range missile interception systems. Wednesday’s display also included the advanced Arrow 3 antiballistic missile system, which was jointly developed by Israel and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

One of the first countries to develop a deployable laser weapon, Israel has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to the project as Israel and some of its Middle Eastern allies, including the United Arab Emirates, increasingly face airborne threats from their shared enemy, Iran, and its proxies.

Introducing the laser weapon this spring, Naftali Bennett, then Israel’s prime minister, hinted at the broader possibilities, saying that it was an asset that Israel could use to “gain support, create alliances and become even stronger.”

“This new generation of Israeli air defense could also serve our friends in the region who are also exposed to severe threats from Iran and its proxies,” Mr. Bennett said.

Israel is not alone in developing such weapons. At least one laser weapon, Lockheed Martin’s Helios, has started deployment on U.S. Navy ships, and the United States Army has been working on more powerful ones able to down cruise missiles.

The technology has shifted from the chemical laser — which required corrosive and toxic chemicals to induce a beam, as well as bulky machinery — to the solid-state laser, which requires only copious amounts of electricity.

Israeli officials say they are working closely with the United States on laser technology and looking to partner with their main strategic ally.

“We are sharing knowledge with the Americans,” Dr. Daniel Gold, the head of the Directorate of Defense Research and Development in Israel’s defense ministry and a brigadier general in the reserves, said in an interview shortly before Mr. Biden’s arrival on Wednesday.

“We are talking about how to cooperate on the laser program,” he said. “The U.S. has a very good program; we have very good program,” he said, adding that Wednesday’s display would be the first exposure of Iron Beam to the top level of American leadership.

Israeli defense officials said the laser weapon had performed beyond expectations in a series of live fire tests in the southern Israeli desert this spring, destroying a rocket, a mortar shell and a drone in flight.

Iron Dome is heavily subsidized by the United States, with each interception costing tens of thousands of dollars. Mr. Biden recently approved an allocation of about $1 billion for the acquirement of additional interceptors. Israeli officials say the main advantage of the Iron Beam will be its cost effectiveness, with interceptions costing little more than the power needed to operate it.

One disadvantage, however, is that ground-based laser beams are ineffective in hazy and cloudy conditions.

Susan Rice, who served as national security adviser under President Barack Obama, touring the Palmachim air base in in 2014.
Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

Israel had hoped that President Biden, upon landing, would travel to Palmachim, an Israeli military air base on the Mediterranean coast, for a 40-minute show and tell on the latest Israeli air defense technology on Wednesday.

A major launch site for Israeli drones, Palmachim air base might have made a symbolic backdrop to efforts by Israel and the United States to cement a regional alliance against Iranian drones.

Instead, the exhibition was abruptly moved this weekend to a hangar at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, seemingly to save time on a tight trip. Reducing transit time may also benefit Mr. Biden after a long trans-Atlantic flight, amid concerns about his energy levels.

The Israeli military released a bombastic video last week showing what the president would inspect. The array included a new laser weapon that Israel hopes will shoot down enemy missiles, and the Iron Dome air defense system, which has blunted the threat of rockets from Gaza and is part-funded by the United States.

Mr. Biden greeted Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog with fist bumps.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

JERUSALEM — That didn’t last very long.

President Biden avoided shaking hands upon landing in Israel on Wednesday, just as aides hinted he would, citing the rapidly spreading new Covid-19 subvariant, and fist-bumped local leaders instead. But only minutes later, he evidently forgot and shook hands with two former prime ministers anyway.

Outsized attention was focused on what Mr. Biden would do, because his staff appeared to be laying the ground to make it possible for him to avoid a much more politically unhealthy handshake later in his trip with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Because of Covid, aides suggested, he might refrain from all handshakes during the four-day swing through the region, sparing him a photo that he would prefer to avoid.

Mr. Biden initially appeared to be going along with the idea after disembarking from Air Force One at Ben Gurion Airport. When Prime Minister Yair Lapid and other Israeli dignitaries reached their hands out, Mr. Biden surprised them by offering a fist bump instead. But he wore no mask and hardly minimized contact otherwise, cheerfully grabbing elbows and draping his arm over Mr. Lapid’s shoulder as if they were longtime friends.

Then, after the red-carpet speeches were over, the no-handshake memo seemed to slip Mr. Biden’s mind altogether as he was led to a waiting group of Israeli parliamentary leaders for a group photo. He reached out to shake hands first with former Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and then with former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the latter getting an especially long and robust shake despite their past differences.

So much for the plan, if that was indeed the plan. Just hours earlier, White House officials flying with Mr. Biden to Jerusalem had emphasized the rise of the highly contagious Omicron subvariant known as BA.5 in suggesting that he might not shake hands.

“We’re in a phase of the pandemic now where we are seeking to reduce contact,” Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, told reporters aboard Air Force One. But Mr. Sullivan knew his boss and sought to avoid making hard predictions. “I can’t speak to every moment and every interaction and every movement,” he added. “That’s just a general principle we’re applying.”

Mr. Biden and his aides have been dreading the image of the president meeting with Prince Mohammed, who was deemed responsible for the brutal 2018 killing in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and columnist for The Washington Post who was living in the United States.

But even though Mr. Biden vowed as a candidate to punish Saudi Arabia by making the kingdom a “pariah,” the president decided that it was worth the political cost of traveling there this week to counter Chinese influence, press for additional oil production and encourage closer ties with Israel.

He is scheduled to fly to Jeddah on Friday and will meet that evening with King Salman and Prince Mohammed, as well as other ministers. On Saturday, he will meet with other Arab leaders gathering in Jeddah, both individually and collectively. But no encounter is more fraught than the one with Prince Mohammed.

Mr. Biden has been shaking plenty of hands in recent days, so a firm no-handshake policy would have been an abrupt change of practice. But the president’s coronavirus response team warned Americans on Tuesday to do more to protect themselves against the virus as a new wave of infections, re-infections and hospitalizations spreads across the United States.

Workers prepared an area at Ben Gurion Airport before President Biden’s arrival in Israel for a military display there on Wednesday.
Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — Even as President Biden was still in the air on his way to the Middle East on Wednesday, the Israeli and American governments made a flurry of announcements in anticipation of his arrival in Israel. The two sides unveiled a high-level U.S.-Israeli initiative on technology and national security, and the Israeli government made several small gestures to the Palestinians.

The technology initiative, called a “strategic dialogue,” will focus on fields including artificial intelligence, quantum information science and solutions to global challenges such as climate change and improving pandemic preparedness, according to a joint announcement.

Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence directorate, told reporters that the move “means that the United States recognizes Israel as a science and tech superpower,” and that it was important for the United States that “Israel will cooperate with it, and not with China.”

That move comes on a presidential trip that is partly about stemming China’s inroads into the Middle East. Last week, Riyadh and Washington quietly signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on building a next-generation 5G cellular network in Saudi Arabia. That is designed to box out Huawei, China’s 5G champion.

The Israeli government also made several small gestures to the Palestinians, amid low expectations that Mr. Biden’s visit will have a significant effect on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Officials said that Israel would grant 1,500 new work permits to Palestinians in Gaza, most of whom are not allowed to enter Israel. Israel also said it would advance plans to make it easier for Palestinians to build homes in six towns in the occupied West Bank where Palestinians usually struggle to win construction approval, and regularize the status of 5,500 Palestinians living in the West Bank without proper paperwork.

The government also postponed a discussion about whether to build thousands of new settlement units in East Jerusalem, according to Kan, the Israeli state broadcaster.

But no major developments are expected on the Palestinian front, with Israelis and Palestinians both divided about how and whether to return to negotiations, which were last held in 2014. Palestinians have been disappointed by Mr. Biden’s failure to reverse several measures taken by the Trump administration that Palestinians felt were harmful to their hopes of independence.

A memorial at the site where Shireen Abu Akleh was killed in the West Bank.
Samar Hazboun for The New York Times

The Biden administration has sidestepped a request for a meeting between the U.S. president and the family of Shireen Abu Akleh, a prominent Palestinian American journalist who was killed while reporting in the occupied West Bank in May.

The State Department has instead invited the family to Washington, according to Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, and Anton Abu Akleh, the journalist’s brother.

The decision risked exacerbating Palestinian anger at the Biden administration, after recent accusations that the United States has tried to shield Israel from scrutiny after Ms. Abu Akleh’s death, and amid wider Palestinian claims that the United States favors Israel.

In an open letter to Mr. Biden before his arrival in Israel on Wednesday, the Abu Akleh family had spoken of their “grief, outrage and sense of betrayal concerning your administration’s abject response to the extrajudicial killing,” and requested a meeting so that the president could “hear directly from us about our concerns and demands for justice.”

For years, Palestinians have questioned Washington’s ability to neutrally mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, citing strong American support for Israel at the United Nations and the size of U.S. financial and military support to Israel, which has cumulatively received more American aid than any other country since World War II.

Against that backdrop, the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, initially ignored weeks of American pressure to share with Israeli investigators the bullet that killed Ms. Abu Akleh. But the authority reversed its position and handed over the bullet after U.S. officials argued that a forensic examination might link the bullet to the rifle that fired it and therefore help determine who had killed her.

So just days before President Biden’s visit to the region, Palestinian anger rose last week after the United States concluded that Ms. Abu Akleh, 51, was most likely killed by accident — probably by Israeli fire — and said that it would not push Israel to pursue a criminal investigation into any Israeli soldier.

The Palestinian Authority and a number of Palestinians, as well as the journalist’s family, considered the American announcement an attempt to shield Israel from accountability — a claim that Washington denied.

Some Palestinians nevertheless had hoped that the Biden administration might at least push Israel to conduct a criminal investigation into Ms. Abu Akleh’s death. But American officials suggested that the U.S. government was unlikely to push for an Israeli prosecution. A State Department statement stressed that Washington had “no reason to believe” that Ms. Abu Akleh’s killing was “intentional” but that it was instead “the result of tragic circumstances.”

Ned Price, a State Department spokesman, said the United States wanted to see “a degree of accountability” for the killing, and for the Israeli Army to introduce additional safeguards for civilians in future raids. But pushed on the question of a criminal prosecution, Mr. Price said the Biden administration was “not going to be prescriptive” about the exact form an Israeli investigation took.

The absence of American pressure diminishes the likelihood of criminal charges being pursued against anyone in any forum.

Patrick Kingsley and Hiba Yazbek

President Biden boarding Air Force One for his trip to the Middle East on Tuesday.
Doug Mills/The New York Times

JERUSALEM — As President Biden travels to Israel on Wednesday, his four-day trip to the Middle East is aimed at trying to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, speed up the flow of oil to American pumps, and reshape the relationship with Saudi Arabia without seeming to embrace a crown prince who stands accused of flagrant human rights abuses.

All three efforts are fraught with political dangers for a president who knows the region well but is returning for the first time in six years with far less leverage than he would like to shape events.

His 18-month-long negotiation to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal has ground to a stop, stymying the diplomatic effort to force Tehran to ship out of the country most of the nuclear fuel it is now enriching to near-bomb-grade levels.

And while no explicit deal is expected to be announced on raising Saudi oil production — out of concern that it might come across as unseemly, a reward for easing the crown prince’s return to the diplomatic fold — that is likely to come in a month or two, officials say.

There is also an element of superpower maneuvering to the trip.

Mr. Biden made it clear when he came to office that he wanted to de-emphasize the American focus on the Middle East, and focus on China — a reflection of his belief that Washington wasted 20 years when it should have been focusing on a true peer competitor. But the trip is also partly about stemming China’s inroads into the region. Last week, Riyadh and Washington quietly signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on building a next-generation 5G cellular network in Saudi Arabia. That is designed to box out Huawei, China’s 5G champion.

The politics of the war in Ukraine will also be in background.

Mr. Biden’s aides made clear that they were annoyed in the spring when the Israeli government insisted on taking a largely neutral stance on the war.

On Monday, as Mr. Biden was preparing to leave for the trip, his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, revealed for the first time that intelligence agencies had concluded that Iran — Israel’s primary adversary — was planning to aid Russia in its battle against Ukraine.

Mr. Sullivan’s primary motive in revealing the Iranian operation was to warn Tehran and Moscow that the United States is watching. But with Mr. Biden’s visit expected to open with a demonstration of new Israeli capabilities to use laser weapons against drones and missiles, it appeared also intended to send a message to the Israeli government about more vigorously backing Ukraine.

It also gives Mr. Biden and the caretaker prime minister who will serve as his host, Yair Lapid, a common point of agreement in how to confront Iran, amid continuing behind-the-scenes jostling over how to handle a crucial turn in Iran’s nuclear program.

The head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, at an International Atomic Energy Agency conference in Austria in 2019.
Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

President Biden’s visit gives the United States a chance to bridge its differences with the Israeli government over how to contain Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel vociferously objected to the 2015 nuclear agreement, and the prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to Congress about the need to block it. (Many of his intelligence and military chiefs disagreed, and later said they thought the agreement, which forced Iran to ship 97 percent of its fuel stockpiles out of the country, had bought them years.)

When President Donald J. Trump pulled the United States out of the accord in 2018, it touched off a new surge in the Iranian nuclear program. Iran has now produced a considerable amount of uranium at near-bomb-grade purity — something it never did before the 2015 accord — and Israel has stepped up its sabotage campaign, blowing up Iranian facilities. In response, Iran is speeding the development of new, underground facilities.

Officially, Israel opposes a renewal of the agreement — though it appears to be a moot issue.

The talks have been stalled for months, with Mr. Biden refusing a demand from Iran that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps be removed from Washington’s list of terrorist organizations. Robert Malley, the chief American negotiator, whom the Iranians have refused to meet face to face, told NPR recently that “whether they are interested or not, they’re going to have to decide sooner or later, because at some point the deal will be a thing of the past.”

It may already be beyond the point of resuscitating.

In the early spring, Mr. Malley and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said there were just weeks, maybe a month or so, to reach a deal before Iran’s advances, and the knowledge gained as it installed advanced centrifuges to produce uranium in high volume, would make the 2015 agreement outdated.

Now, four months later, Mr. Biden’s aides decline to explain how they let that deadline go by — and they still insist that reviving the deal is more valuable than abandoning it.

Rafael Grossi, the director of the world’s nuclear inspector, said this month in Australia that he believed the Iranian program had now gotten so advanced that others in the region would be tempted to copy it. Saudi Arabia has said it reserves the right to build any nuclear infrastructure that Iran builds.

“We are now in a situation where Iran’s neighbors could start to fear the worst and plan accordingly,” Mr. Grossi said. “There are countries in the region today looking very carefully at what is happening with Iran, and tensions in the region are rising.” He added that political leaders had on occasion said “they would actively seek nuclear weapons if Iran were to pose a nuclear threat.”

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