Middle East trip: Biden faces a critical day of closely watched meetings in the West Bank and Saudi Arabia.

Following that meeting, Biden flies directly to Saudi Arabia from Israel. There he is expected to hold much-anticipated bilateral meetings Including Saudi King Salman and his advisers Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The White House confirmed Thursday that the Saudi king will only be around 30 minutes during bilateral meetings Friday night, according to Biden’s schedule. Due to the King’s health, the President and the Crown Prince were expected to continue their meeting after the King’s departure.

The United States has accused the crown prince of approving the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 through a CIA report.

The president’s interactions with the crown prince will be heavily scrutinized — especially over how he greets MBS and whether Biden shakes his hand. The White House sought to downplay any greeting between Biden and MBS.

“We focus on meetings, not greetings,” a senior executive told reporters.

The official said, “The president greets the leaders as he does. And there’s no special rules for one leader or another. So I know we’ve gotten a little bit off on this question, but it’s true for those of us who work. — We focus on the essence of the meetings, the specific greetings.” No. The president visits about a dozen leaders and greets them as usual.”

Biden’s handshakes — or lack thereof — were under the microscope The trip comes after the White House said the president wants to limit contact with others amid the spread of the transmissible subtype of the omicron variant of Covid-19. Biden has notably broken from that guideline on several occasions in the two days since his arrival in Israel, offering fist bumps, adding fuel to speculation that the White House directive was an elaborate excuse for Biden to avoid shaking the crown prince’s hand. .

Biden in Saudi Arabia

Journey to Jeddah Khashoggi’s murder has been a particular thorn in the side of the White House since it took effect earlier this year, based on the president’s campaign promise to make the nation a “pariah” country. Biden paused for a moment on Thursday He pledged to raise Khashoggi’s killing directly with leaders in Saudi Arabia, saying he would “always” bring up human rights and that his views on the killing were “absolutely, positively”. US officials told CNN earlier Biden is expected to bring up Khashoggi with MBS during the trip.

Overnight, Saudi Arabia confirmed an expected announcement that its airspace would be opened to Israeli airlines. Noting that he would become the first US president to fly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, Biden hailed the “historic decision” that followed “months of steady diplomacy.”

The move comes amid high gas prices and widespread inflation in the US and around the world. Russia’s invasion of UkraineThe president and other officials have dismissed Saudi Arabia’s rich oil supply as the main motivation for the trip.

Meetings with the Saudi leadership will focus on strengthening the ongoing ceasefire in Yemen, technology cooperation including 5G, clean energy, global infrastructure and human rights, and discussing global energy supply, a senior administration official said.

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

“Given the current market conditions, I think the conversation is really focused on, how do we look at things? How do we look at the next six months, how can we keep the markets balanced to contribute to continued economic growth? Our general focus is not only on the Saudis, but also on other producers,” said the official.

The official added, “Of course, the president has said for months that he will do everything possible to lower prices. That includes the release of our own strategic petroleum reserves. That includes diplomacy with other producers. Domestic production.”

Biden on the West Bank

But before flying to Saudi Arabia for the most stressful 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 delivered remarks at Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, announcing that he is 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 time in office.

“Part of our commitment is to support health and dignity for the Palestinian people,” he said, pointing to the “tough toll” of the Covid-19 epidemic on the hospital system.

He continued, “Working together, it is my prayer that America will help relieve hospital debt burdens, support targeted infrastructure improvements, and support key reforms in patient care that ensure long-term financial sustainability.”

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The meetings followed Thursday’s session with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who said the president’s visit on Friday showed “his commitment to Israel’s military and diplomatic strength” and “moved the entire country.”

The president is expected Friday morning to announce an additional $201 million to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East to support refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine. SyriaAccording to the White House.

Israel has pledged to work with the Palestinians to speed up the implementation of a 4G network in Gaza and the West Bank, and Biden is expected to announce a goal of expanding that infrastructure by the end of next year.

“Rebuilding ties with the Palestinians that were severed by the previous administration is a priority for President Biden,” the official said.

The official said Biden will tell Abbas that Israel has agreed to increase access to the Allenby Bridge so that Palestinians and others have 24/7 access in September. Israel controls the only bridge through which Palestinians enter Jordan from the West Bank.

“He will also announce measures to build grassroots support for peace, including supporting cooperation and professional exchanges in building mutual trust between the Palestinian and Israeli health sectors,” the official said.

The United States will provide an additional $15 million in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians in response to food insecurity exacerbated by Russia’s occupation of Ukraine.

Before leaving for Saudi Arabia, Biden will “visit the Church of the Nativity to underscore support for Christians facing challenges in the region,” the official said.

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CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.

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