JERUSALEM-President Biden arrived in Israel on Wednesday to open a four-day Middle East visit that will focus on trying to slo down Iran’s nuclear program, getting oil to American gas pumps and improving relations with Saudi Arabia.
Nearly 50 years after making his first trip to Israel as a newly elected senator, Mr. Biden returned for the first time as president and wasted no time seeking to reaffirm his steadfast support for the Jewish state despite friction over his efforts to negotiate a new nuclear agreement with Iran.
“Every chance to return to this great country where the ancient roots of the Jewish people date back to biblical times is a blessing, because the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep,” Mr. Biden said during a brief arrival ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport. “Generation after generation, that connection grows.”
Mr. Biden, who noted as he often does that he has known every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, whom he met on his first trip in 1973, was making his 10th visit to Israel and seemed intent on dispelling the notion that he is any less supportive of the country than his predecessor, President Donald J. Trump, who made his backing for Israel a cornerstone of his foreign policy.
“Our relationship is deeper in my view than it’s ever been,” Mr. Biden said.
Greeting him as he disembarked from Air Force One, Israeli leaders echoed the sentiment, emphasizing that they viewed Mr. Biden as a friend and making little note of their differences. President Isaac Herzog called him “our brother Joseph,” declaring, “You are truly amongst family.” The country’s interim prime minister, Yair Lapid, called him “a great Zionist and one of the best friends Israel has ever known.”
“It is a very personal visit,” Mr. Lapid said, “because your relationship with Israel has always been very personal. You once defined yourself as a Zionist. You said that you don’t have to be a Jew in order to be a Zionist. And you were right. ”
Without dwelling on it, Mr. Lapid 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.
Mr. Biden likewise touched on another area of potential tension, restating 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 while Mr. Biden will visit President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in Bethlehem, restoring communications that were cut off during the Trump presidency, there are few expectations that the visit will bring progress in resolving the dispute.
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 the opposition and will have only a brief meeting with the president on Thursday.
But he and Mr. Biden have a warm if often fraught relationship that goes back four decades, and the American leader made a point of seeking out Mr. Netanyahu during a group photo for Israeli and US officials. Mr. Biden gave Mr. Netanyahu a long, warm handclasp, and both men gave the impression of being happy to see each other.
The president’s trip comes at a delicate moment in Israeli politics. A fragile governing coalition recently collapsed, leaving Mr. Lapid serving as a caretaker prime minister until November elections in which Mr. Netanyahu hopes to make a comeback.
At the end of the reception ceremony, 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.’ ”