People often describe events in the Middle East as following a vicious circle, but after covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a decade, I think it is more accurate to invoke a vicious spiral: You find the same story line again and again, but each time it seems to have descended to a bleaker place.
I was reminded of that image upon hearing Tuesday that Saudi Arabia had denied Michael Wilner, my successor as Washington bureau chief of the Jerusalem Post, a visa to cover President Obama’s visit there this week.
In February 2007, soon after I moved to Washington for the Jerusalem Post, I spoke to a Saudi diplomat who told me that the Holocaust, a “historical fact,” was a “horrible” event. While such remarks about the Holocaust might seem banal, and certainly obvious, it was a dramatic statement for a Saudi envoy to make. Though his comments came during an impromptu conversation on the sidelines of a Capitol Hill reception – held to condemn anti-Semitism – there was nothing casual about a Saudi official agreeing to talk to a representative of an Israeli paper. (Like Wilner, I am a U.S. citizen and not Israeli.)
That small gesture seemed to portend so much. Contacts between Israelis and Palestinians had recently taken place, and the seeds of the Annapolis process, which would formally launch a resumption of negotiations in November, had been planted. The Saudis were seen as a crucial presence at the Annapolis conference; the George W. Bush administration, which organized it, felt that the Palestinians needed to have the support of the broader Arab world to make concessions while Israel needed to be reassured that it would receive normalization from its Middle East neighbors in return for whatever it gave up. I saw the presence of a Saudi diplomat at an anti-Semitism event, combined with his willingness to talk to an Israeli newspaper, as signs that the country was open to the peace process.
These days, though, according to the White House Correspondents’ Association, Saudi Arabia refused a visa to only one journalist who signed up to accompany Obama on his trip: the reporter for the Jerusalem Post. (The association wrote a blistering letter about Wilner’s treatment.)
The Saudis like to tout their initiative for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, and the plodding talks now underway are sure to feature in Obama’s conversations in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. But if it is unwilling to admit an American reporter for an Israeli outlet on a presidential trip, how much are the Saudis really willing to do? And how can there be progress toward peace when there’s no communication, or even the impersonal means of facilitating it — media coverage?
On the other hand, one dimension of this story has spiraled up, rather than down: how the White House deals with Jerusalem Post correspondents who apply for visas for official travel to Arab countries that don’t have relations with Israel. Though I never requested such a visa, Wolf Blitzer did when he worked for the paper in 1986. In that case, he received a visa to accompany the vice president to Jordan, which had yet to sign a peace accord with Israel, as well as the Jordanian ambassador’s assurance that he would be welcomed, as recounted by the New York Times. At the last minute, the White House pulled the plug, which Blitzer figured had apparently been done out of fear that his presence might “cause an incident that would detract from the Vice President’s visit.” After the incident became public, the White House ended up relenting, only to receive word that Blitzer was no longer welcome in Jordan.
This time, according to the Jerusalem Post, the White House made repeated appeals to the Saudis to let Wilner participate, with national security adviser Susan Rice and her deputy, Tony Blinken, making direct requests. Several Obama administration officials later publicly criticized the visa denial.
Wilner was highly appreciative of the exertions. “I was really humbled by the effort the White House made,” he told me.
While it might be out of the question to cancel a presidential visit because a journalist is denied a visa, Obama still has an opportunity to stand up for press freedom, inclusivity and the dialogue he is so eager to foster between the different parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
He can use the platform he has in Saudi Arabia to denounce the denial of my former colleague’s visa as part of a broader condemnation of the suppression of free speech and religious expression that is so common in the kingdom. Maybe that will start some virtuous cycles in a region that sorely needs them.
Follow Hilary on Twitter: @hilarykrieger