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Biden defends visit to Saudi Arabia despite Khashoggi killing

The president does not say whether he will bring up the murder with Saudi officials when he is in Jiddah

President Biden attends the first virtual meeting of the "I2U2" group with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and leaders of India and the United Arab Emirates in Jerusalem on July 14. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

JERUSALEM — President Biden declined to say Thursday whether he would press Saudi leaders on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi when he meets with them on Friday, injecting a tense and uncertain twist into Biden’s high-stakes first encounter with officials from a country he vowed to isolate for its human rights abuses.

Biden defended his decision to visit Saudi Arabia and attend the meeting, which will include top Saudi figures including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader who U.S. intelligence officials say orchestrated Khashoggi’s murder. The president said the Saudis are central to any effort to stabilize the volatile region and prevent it from falling into the Chinese or Russian orbit.

“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear, and I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Biden said in response to a question during a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. “The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia is to promote U.S. interests in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert our influence in the Middle East.”

Analysis: Two killings haunt Biden’s Middle East trip

Speaking on the second day of his four-day trip to the Middle East, Biden said alienating the Saudis would hurt American interests at a time when the United States is engaged in a global struggle for influence with Moscow and Beijing. “There are so many issues at stake, I want to make sure that we can continue to lead in the region and not create a vacuum, a vacuum that is filled by both Russia and China,” the president said.

“I always bring up human rights,” Biden added. “But my position on Khashoggi has been so clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it, in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that the crown prince, who is widely called by his initials, MBS, ordered the 2018 killing of Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributing columnist. Biden will not hold a one-on-one meeting with the crown prince during his relatively brief stay in Jiddah.

The killing was widely condemned, including by Biden on the campaign trail, where he publicly vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.” He has expressed deep reservations to aides about meeting with the crown prince and said the country’s government has “very little social redeeming value.” In June, he said, “I’m not going to meet with MBS.”

Biden: Why I'm going to Saudi Arabia

But White House aides ultimately decided it was impractical to avoid any contact with the powerful crown prince. During a meeting with Lapid earlier Thursday, Biden spoke of the collaboration needed to stabilize the Middle East and to ensure, among other things, that Iran will never obtain a nuclear weapon.

The United States is engaged in prolonged talks with Iran and other countries to persuade Tehran to rejoin an Obama-era nuclear deal that was abandoned by President Donald Trump. Biden told reporters that “we are not going to wait forever” for Tehran to agree to its offer, but he did repeat his assertion from an interview Wednesday that he would only take military action against the regime “as a last resort.”

Iran must be prevented from obtaining a nuclear weapon, Biden said, but “I continue to believe that diplomacy is the best way to achieve this outcome.”

He said the goal of regional and global stability will be his principal message in his meeting with the Saudis. “When I see the Saudi leadership tomorrow, I’ll be carrying a direct message,” Biden said. “A message of peace and of the extraordinary opportunities a more stable integrated region could bring to the region and, quite frankly, to the rest of the world.”

Still, his decision to share space with the crown prince has been a lightning rod. Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, condemned Biden’s visit.

“You can imagine how shocked and disappointed I was to learn that you would break your promise and travel to Saudi Arabia to likely meet with the crown prince — the person who U.S. intelligence determined was responsible for ordering Jamal’s murder,” she wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post.

“You condemn Russia for persecuting dissidents and committing war crimes in Ukraine,” Cengiz added. “But the Saudis are executing the same horrific human rights abuses. Why are they being given a pass? Is that the price of oil?”

Fred Ryan, The Post’s publisher, criticized Biden for “going to Jiddah on bended knee to shake the ‘pariah’s’ bloodstained hand.”

Saudi Arabia has been condemned by human rights activists for a variety of abuses beyond the Khashoggi killing, including the repression and torture of dissidents and the waging of a brutal war in Yemen.

Biden was to limit handshakes on this trip. He’s having trouble doing it.

Hanan Elatr, who was married to Khashoggi, said she was invited to meet with national security officials at the White House earlier this week. The “White House gave me an assuring feeling that human rights would definitely be brought up in the meeting with the Saudis and especially the issue of Jamal and his real wishes and legacy,” Elatr said in a statement.

The White House has consistently defended Biden’s stance toward the Saudis in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing.

“We’re not in the habit of previewing private discussions we have with other leaders before they happen, but President Biden took actions with respect to the Khashoggi murder right after coming into office,” a White House official said in a statement, noting that the president released a U.S. intelligence report on the killing, issued new sanctions and imposed visa bans on 76 Saudi officials. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

But intelligence officials’ conclusion that the crown prince is directly to blame for Khashoggi’s death has made it hard for Biden to deal with Saudi Arabia while avoiding him, because the crown prince has steadily consolidated power as the country’s leader even while the king is the official head of state.

Some analysts said that by declining to say whether he would raise Khashoggi’s killing in Jiddah, Biden was letting the crown prince off the hook.

“He avoided any commitment to raising the Khashoggi murder specifically with the Saudis, including MBS, so any pretense of accountability is gone,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA and White House official who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

But others said the administration has little choice, given Saudi Arabia’s central role in the Middle East.

“The Biden team has moved from this phase of adolescence to a slightly more mature phase of ‘We’re not happy about it, but what else are you going to do?’ ” said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “It’s not like you’re going to be able to dislodge the guy, so we have to make the most of a very difficult situation. U.S. policy in the Middle East is littered with numerous examples of this.”

On Iran, some former diplomats noted that Biden did little to show his hand, given that the nuclear talks are floundering and it’s not clear what the U.S. policy will be should they collapse.

In an otherwise warm back-and-forth, Lapid signaled differences with Biden on the Iran threat — the prime minister minimized diplomacy with Tehran as an option, while the president insisted it was still the best path. Still, Biden seemed to accept that the talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal are struggling.

“On the nuclear deal, it’s obviously disappointing because he’s not hinting at any new approach, and the current one isn’t working,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former Obama administration official and executive director of the McCain Institute. “We will have to trust that they are working on how to put more leverage on Iran behind the scenes.”

Questions about the meeting in Saudi Arabia have overshadowed Biden’s trip from the outset, when he stepped off Air Force One on Wednesday offering fist bumps instead of handshakes. The White House said a new protocol of limiting presidential handshakes was intended to protect Biden from the coronavirus — but it also gives the White House a way to avoid a Biden-crown prince handshake.

Biden had not previously visited the Middle East as president. Upon taking office, Biden made it clear he would focus his foreign policy on confronting China, which he views as the biggest long-term threat to American interests, and he soon found himself dealing with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On Thursday, Biden pledged, without specifics, to keep working for a negotiated peace deal between Israel and Palestinians, a process that has been stalled for years.

The president, who will meet Friday in Bethlehem with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, reaffirmed his long-standing support for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank as the most desirable solution to the enduring conflict, casting it as the resolution that would best ensure Israel’s own future.

“Israel must remain an independent, democratic and Jewish state — the ultimate guarantee and guarantor of the Jewish people, not only in Israel but the entire world. I believe that to my core,” Biden said. “The best way to achieve that remains a two-state solution for two peoples, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land living side-by-side in peace and security, both states fully respecting the equal rights of their citizens.”

Lapid, who will be fighting to keep his job in elections in November, is one of the few national politicians in Israel who has continued to endorse the two-state concept as the idea steadily lost public support.

Asked by a reporter to confirm his support for a potential independent Palestine, Lapid said, “I haven’t changed my position. A two-state solution is a guarantee for a strong democratic state of Israel with a Jewish majority.”

Kareem Fahim, Steve Hendrix and Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.

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