Jerusalem (CNN) — US President Joe Biden is traveling to the West Bank this Friday and will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before heading to Saudi Arabia for the final stage of his visit to the Middle East, which is closely followed by many.
The meeting with the Palestinian leader comes as Biden continues to advocate for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, although he says he does not see such a settlement materializing anytime soon.
A senior administration official who anticipated Biden’s timeline said the president would announce several measures aimed at supporting the Palestinian people, including US aid for hospitals and refugees, as well as efforts to upgrade the 4G network in Gaza and the West Bank.
Biden made remarks at the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem and announced that he will ask the US 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 East Jerusalem Hospital Network during his tenure.
Biden was also scheduled to visit Mahmoud Abbas at the Muqataa presidential compound in Bethlehem on the West Bank.
Biden will fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, where he is expected to hold long-awaited bilateral meetings with Saudi King Salman and his advisersincluding Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Under Biden’s schedule, the Saudi king will only be present for about 30 minutes during bilateral meetings on Friday night, the White House confirmed Thursday. The president and the crown prince will continue their meeting after the king’s departure, for health reasons.
The United States accused the crown prince in a declassified CIA report of having approved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The crown prince has denied involvement.
President has repeatedly defended his decision to travel to Saudi Arabia and meet with bin Salman, maintaining that his administration wants to lead in the region and not create a vacuum for Russia and China to fill. But the trip has been heavily scrutinized and the decision to meet with bin Salman is a significant departure from Biden’s campaign promise to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” state.
The president’s interactions with the crown prince will come under intense scrutiny, particularly how he greets bin Salman and whether Biden shakes his hand. The White House has tried to downplay any handshake between Biden and the prince.
“We focus on meetings, not greetings,” a senior administration official told reporters.
“The president will greet leaders the way he does. And there are no special rules for one leader or another. So I know we’ve been asked this question quite a bit, but for those of us who do the work, it’s really, we focus on the essence of meetings and not in private greetings. The president will address a dozen leaders and greet them as he usually does,” the official said.
Biden’s handshakes — or lack thereof — have come under scrutiny during 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 has notably departed from that guidance on multiple occasions in the two days he has been in Israel after offering fist bumps after his arrival, adding fuel to speculation that the White House guidance was an elaborate excuse for Biden will avoid shaking hands with the crown prince.
The controversies surrounding Biden’s trip to 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 election promise to turn the nation into a “pariah” state over Khashoggi’s killing. On Thursday, Biden stopped short of committing to raising Khashoggi’s killing directly with leaders in Saudi Arabia, saying he “always” brings up human rights and his views on the killing have been “absolutely and positively clear.” . US officials had told CNN before the trip that Biden was expected to broach the Khashoggi issue with bin Salman.
The trip comes amid high gas prices and widespread inflation in the US and around the world, in part due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though the president and other officials have dismissed the rich supply of Saudi Arabian oil as a key motivator for the trip.
A senior administration official said the meetings with Saudi leaders will focus on strengthening the ongoing truce in Yemen, technological cooperation, including in 5G, clean energy, global infrastructure and human rights, as well as discussing global energy supply. .
But the official suggested that US, Saudi and other Middle Eastern officials would talk about energy security issues and that Biden would engage with world leaders to lower gas prices.
“I think the conversation really turns to, 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 contributes to continued economic growth? So that It is our common approach, 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 in his power to lower prices. That includes our own release of Strategic Petroleum Reserves. That includes diplomacy with other producers, and includes of course , our own national production”.
Biden on the West Bank
But before he flies to Saudi Arabia for the most pressure-laden part of his trip, Biden has a series of engagements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and several funding announcements aimed at helping the Palestinians.
The president is expected to announce an additional $201 million this Friday 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 is also expected to announce that Israel has committed to working with the Palestinians to accelerate the rollout of a 4G network in Gaza and the West Bank, with the goal of rolling out that infrastructure by the end of next year.
“It has been a priority for President Biden to rebuild ties with the 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 that Palestinians and others can access it 24/7 by September. 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 build grassroots support for peace, including supporting collaboration and professional exchanges between the Palestinian and Israeli health sectors as they work to build mutual trust,” the official said.
The United States will also provide an additional $15 million in humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in response to increased food insecurity caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Before leaving for Saudi Arabia, Biden is scheduled to visit the Church of the Nativity “to underscore support for Christians facing challenges throughout the region,” the official said.
— CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.