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Middle East trip: Biden faces crucial day of closely watched meetings in West Bank and Saudi Arabia

After that meeting, Biden will fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, where he is expected to hold much-anticipated bilateral meetings with Saudi King Salman and his advisers, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to Biden’s schedule, the Saudi king will only be present for about 30 minutes during bilateral meetings on Friday evening, the White House confirmed Thursday. The President and the Crown Prince will continue their meeting after the King leaves, which was expected due to the King’s health.

The United States accused the crown prince in a declassified CIA report of approving the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The crown prince has denied any involvement.

The president’s interactions with the crown prince will be scrutinized – particularly the way he greets MBS and whether Biden shakes his hand. The White House has sought to downplay any greetings between Biden and MBS.

“We are focused on meetings, not greetings,” a senior administration official told reporters.

The official said: “The President will greet leaders as he does. And there are no special rules for one leader or another. So I know we’ve been getting this question a bit, but for those of between us doing the work, it’s really – we focus on the substance of the meetings and not on the particular greetings. The president goes to see a dozen leaders and he will greet them as he usually does.

Biden’s handshakes — or lack thereof — came under the microscope on this trip after the White House said the president was seeking to reduce contact with others amid the spread of a transmissible subvariant. of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. Biden visibly broke with that advice several times during the two days he was in Israel after offering punches after arriving, adding fuel to speculation that the White House advice was an excuse crafted for Biden to avoid shaking hands with the crown prince. .

Biden in Saudi Arabia

The trip to Jeddah has been particularly thorny for the White House since it began to materialize earlier this year, given the president’s campaign promise to make the nation a “pariah” state for Khashoggi’s murder. On Thursday, Biden stopped committing to raising Khashoggi’s killing directly with Saudi leaders and said he “always” brings up human rights and that his views on the killing are “absolutely, positively light”. US officials had told CNN ahead of the trip that Biden was to raise Khashoggi with MBS.

Overnight, Saudi Arabia confirmed the long-awaited announcement of the opening of its airspace to Israeli airlines. Biden hailed the “historic decision” that followed “months of steady diplomacy,” noting he would become the first US president to fly from Israel to Saudi Arabia.

The trip comes amid high gas prices and widespread inflation in the United States and around the world, in part due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, although the president and other officials dismissed the wealth of Saudi Arabia’s oil supply as a key motivator for the trip.

A senior administration official said meetings with Saudi leaders will focus on strengthening the ongoing truce in Yemen, technology cooperation, including in 5G, clean energy, global infrastructure and human rights. of man, in addition to discussing the world’s energy supply.

But the official suggested that U.S., Saudi and other Middle Eastern officials would talk about energy security issues and that Biden would engage with world leaders to bring gas prices down.

“I think the conversation is really centered around, given the current market conditions, how do we see things? How do we see the next six months and how can we keep the markets balanced in a way that helps the pursuit of economic growth? So that is our common goal, not only with the Saudis, but with other producers,” the official said.

The official added: “And of course the President has said for months that he will do everything possible to bring prices down. That includes our own release from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That includes diplomacy with other producers, and that includes, of course, our own Home Production.”

Biden in the West Bank

But before flying to Saudi Arabia for the most tense part of his trip, Biden had a series of engagements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and several funding announcements aimed at helping the Palestinians.

Biden continued to voice support for a two-state solution, but acknowledged that such a deal “seems so far away” and that “the ground is not ripe right now to resume negotiations.”

However, he also suggested that better relations between Israel and Arab countries could lead to momentum towards an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I believe that as Israel improves its relations with its neighbors across the region, we can harness that same momentum to reinvigorate the peace process between the Palestinian people and the Israelis,” Biden said.

Biden said the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot and killed while covering an Israeli military operation in the West Bank, was “a huge loss for the essential work of sharing with the world the history of the Palestinian people”.

Biden delivered a speech at Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, announcing he was asking Congress to approve up to $100 million for the East Jerusalem hospital network. Former US President Donald Trump cut $25 million in planned funding for the network during his tenure.

“It is part of our commitment to support the health and dignity of the Palestinian people,” he said, and highlighted the “harsh toll” of the Covid-19 pandemic on the hospital system.

He continued, “As we work together, I pray that the United States will help both ease the hospital’s debt burden and support targeted infrastructure upgrades, key patient care reforms to ensure long-term financial stability.

The meetings follow a Thursday meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who said Friday that the president’s visit showed his “commitment to Israel’s military and diplomatic strength” and had “moved the whole country.”

The President also announced Friday morning an additional $201 million for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees to support Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, according to the White House.

Biden said Israel is committed to working with the Palestinians to accelerate the establishment of a 4G network in Gaza and the West Bank, with the aim of deploying this infrastructure by the end of next year.

“It has been a priority for President Biden to rebuild ties with Palestinians that were severed by the previous administration,” the official said.

Biden will tell Abbas that Israel has agreed to increase accessibility to the Allenby Bridge so Palestinians and others can access it 24/7 by September, the official said. The bridge is controlled by Israel and is the only crossing point into Jordan for Palestinians from the West Bank.

“He will also announce steps to strengthen grassroots support for peace, including supporting collaboration and professional exchanges between the Palestinian and Israeli health sectors as they work to build mutual trust,” he said. said the manager.

The United States will also provide an additional $15 million in humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in response to growing food insecurity caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Before leaving for Saudi Arabia, Biden also visited the Church of the Nativity “to emphasize support for Christians facing challenges in the region,” the official said.

CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.

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