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Biden is heading to Saudi Arabia for a controversial trip

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden has had a multinational day. He woke up today in Jerusalem, crossed over into the Israeli-occupied West Bank before continuing on to Saudi Arabia. This portion of his Mideast trip included a meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority. And NPR's Daniel Estrin has been covering this story from Jerusalem. Hey there, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Where has the president been?

ESTRIN: Well, today he was at a place that no sitting U.S. president has ever been. He went to a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem, and he went without Israeli officials. That is significant because Israel claims that area, but Palestinians want that area for their own capital. And by traveling there, Biden gave a nod to Palestinian claims. And then his motorcade saw some of the realities of Israel's occupation of the West Bank. He passed through Israel's concrete wall that surrounds Bethlehem. He passed by signs and billboards that say, Mr. President, this is apartheid - that Israeli human rights activists put up. He passed by a large mural on the West Bank separation barrier with a picture of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian American journalist killed recently that the U.S. has concluded Israeli soldiers killed her.

INSKEEP: Wow. A lot of impressive images there - a lot of images with a lot of messages.

ESTRIN: Right.

INSKEEP: What messages did he bring to the Palestinians?

ESTRIN: You know, he acknowledged that Palestinians realize it. Today, Biden announced hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, and he acknowledged that Palestinians don't want just economic improvement. They want economic and political freedom from Israel. And here's what Biden said.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: There must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see or at least feel.

ESTRIN: A political horizon. You know, and he made the case that even if the ground isn't ripe at this moment to start peace negotiations, he didn't want to give up on the chance to try to bring both sides together. Biden also called for a full accounting of Shireen Abu Akleh's shooting.

INSKEEP: He is at most, then, putting a marker for the future. Is that correct, Daniel? There seems to be no movement or even a prospect of a two-state solution, which is what the president is endorsing.

ESTRIN: That's right. He says he believes in creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but he's the first president in decades not to come with a formal peace plan. He says the sides are not ripe and ready. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was very clear in his remarks. He wants to see steps toward that goal, very specific steps towards restarting talks.

INSKEEP: OK. So the president wrapped up his visit to the West Bank and then got on Air Force One. The destination - Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. And as I understand it, that flight illustrates a development between Israelis and Saudis that's kind of important here.

ESTRIN: That's right. President Biden is calling it historic that he is flying from Israel to Saudi Arabia, although that's just a matter of direction because Trump actually flew from Saudi Arabia to Israel when he was president. The point here is that Israel and Saudi Arabia have been making very small, I'd say, baby steps toward each other. They don't have formal ties. But today, Saudi Arabia announced that it will be allowing Israeli commercial flights to fly over Saudi airspace on their way to points far east - India and China. And that is significant because that is the big prize for Israel. They want a formal peace deal, formal ties with Saudi Arabia. That's not going to happen on this trip, but it is a kind of an announcement that puts a positive spin, I suppose, on Biden's otherwise controversial trip where he's going to be seeing the Saudi crown prince, a man who the U.S. has implicated in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

INSKEEP: Daniel, thanks, as always, for your observations and your insights.

ESTRIN: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.