Biden savors Israel 'homecoming' as Saudi visit looms

STORY: Israel embraced U.S. President Joe Biden as an old friend on Wednesday at the start of a high-stakes visit dominated by efforts to bring Israel closer to Saudi Arabia and persuade Washington's Gulf allies to pump more oil.

Biden bumped fists with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid on the same tarmac he walked as a senator in 1973.

"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 has ever been, with this visit we are strengthening our connection even further, we've reaffirmed the unshakable commitment with the United states to Israel's security including partnering with Israel on the most cutting edge defense systems in the world."

Biden also reiterated a U.S. desire for negotiations, stalled since 2014, for Palestinian independence in Israeli-occupied territory, calling this two-state solution "the best hope."

In a welcoming speech, Lapid called Biden a great friend to Israel.

"And it is a very 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."

Biden also paid his respects at Jerusalem's Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, lighting the Eternal Flame and visiting with Holocaust survivors.

Biden will also hold talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas - the first between a U.S. president and a Palestinian leader since the Obama administration. The Palestinians boycotted the Trump administration over perceived pro-Israel bias.

Later in the week, Biden will attend a summit of Gulf allies in Saudi Arabia - including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, accused by the U.S. intelligence community of being behind the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Under pressure at home to bring down soaring gasoline prices that have damaged his approval ratings, Biden is expected to press for expanded oil production.

Aides say Biden will bring up human rights concerns, but he has nonetheless drawn fire from a wide array of critics.

In an opinion piece, Washington Post publisher Fred Ryan blasted the visit, writing, "The trip sends the message that the United States is willing to look the other way when its commercial interests are at stake."