The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Two killings haunt Biden’s Middle East trip

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President Biden starts a four-day tour of the Middle East on Wednesday. His swing through Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia will mark his presidential debut in a region that has long possessed and vexed the foreign policy establishment in Washington. For Biden, the visit comes at an inopportune time: The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sucked up much of the West’s geopolitical oxygen. At home, swirling economic head winds may presage looming electoral disaster for Democrats in November’s midterms.

Biden has framed his mission in pragmatic, geopolitical terms. In an op-ed for The Washington Post this weekend, he said the meetings were part of a broader bid to reckon with the challenge of Russia and China by working “for greater stability in a consequential region of the world.”

Yet as he goes about what appears to be a jam-packed itinerary from Jerusalem to Jiddah, the shadow of two slain journalists will hang over his trip. There is, of course, the legacy of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor whose gruesome abduction and murder is assessed by the U.S. intelligence community to have been approved by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to make Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” and to dramatically reevaluate Washington’s relationship with Riyadh. But Biden’s visit later this week will underscore how little has changed — and how hollow his earlier rhetoric about democratic values and human rights has proven. Biden will likely meet the crown prince, though coronavirus protocols may spare him the humiliation of a handshake.

Biden heads to Saudi Arabia amid discomfort and criticism

Then there is also Shireen Abu Akleh, the veteran Palestinian-American journalist for Al Jazeera who was fatally shot on May 11 while covering unrest in the West Bank town of Jenin. Forensic, open-source investigations by numerous media outlets, including The Washington Post, concluded that, contrary to initial Israeli claims, Abu Akleh was hit by a bullet likely fired by Israeli security forces.

Palestinians pointed to her killing as only the latest example of the impunity with which Israel carries out its military occupation of the Palestinian territories. They were hardly buoyed by U.S. State Department findings, which concluded that Israeli gunfire was “likely responsible” for Abu Akleh’s death, but said it had “no reason to believe that this was intentional.”

“The United States has been skulking toward the erasure of any wrongdoing by Israeli forces,” noted a letter from Abu Akleh’s family, who have also demanded Biden meet with them during his visit. “It is as if you expect the world and us to now just move on. Silence would have been better.”

Despite a protest planned in Abu Akleh’s honor Thursday in Jerusalem, many analysts doubt Biden will be pressed to do much to reckon with her death. Indeed, there are low expectations for the entire trip to Israel and the West Bank: In the former, Biden meets lame-duck Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who was recently installed and already in the throes of an upcoming election cycle.

In the latter, he will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose custodianship over the moribund process toward a two-state solution looks more forlorn than ever. Biden did not even pay lip service to Palestinian aspirations for statehood — as successive U.S. presidents have in the past — in his weekend op-ed.

“The administration has gone out of its way to absolve Israel of any moral responsibility” surrounding Abu Akleh’s death, Khalid Elgindy, senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told me during a webinar hosted by the Washington-based think tank. “We already knew that the Palestinian issue was really lowdown on the list of priorities for this administration … They don’t seem to be particularly concerned with Mahmoud Abbas’s declining popularity or legitimacy. It’s really just a courtesy call, at best.”

How Shireen Abu Akleh was killed

Yet Israel — and its place in the region — is at the heart of Biden’s trip. The U.S. president will champion Israel’s new engagement with a clutch of Arab monarchies, a legacy of the Abraham Accords ushered in by former president Donald Trump that Biden is taking forward. With efforts to revive the Iran nuclear deal failing, the Biden administration is keen to help better integrate the region’s anti-Iran forces. Once-fanciful talk of an “Arab NATO” has revived, this time with the once-improbable role of Israel as a key partner alongside Gulf monarchies like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Biden may also tacitly be trying to boost more moderate forces within Israel as he is expected to announce a new “strategic partnership” against a nuclear Iran with Lapid at his side. “By definition, a presidential visit will make Lapid look prime ministerial, which is what he needs to boost his case against [Benjamin] Netanyahu, the longest-governing prime minister in Israel’s history,” wrote former U.S. diplomats Aaron David Miller and Steven Simon. “Biden will almost certainly talk about the United States’ unbreakable bond with Israel and its deep commitment to Israeli security. Lapid’s inaugural speech denounced extremism, reached out to Palestinians, and warned Iran. These are themes Biden can work with.”

The Saudis, too, can work with their mutual antipathy toward Iran. They will host Biden in the context of a broader regional summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council — the main bloc of states on the Arabian peninsula. It’s a form of multilateral engagement that U.S. officials may hope will dull criticism of Biden reaching out to those who orchestrated Khashoggi’s killing. Some analysts also argue that it was foolhardy to try to alienate the Saudis in the first place, given their centrality to global oil markets and close relationships in Washington.

“Biden’s move to bury the hatchet with the Saudi crown prince is a necessary and understandable reaction to the world as it is: not just the broken politics of the Middle East but also the global disruptions caused by the Russian war in Ukraine,” wrote F. Gregory Gause III in Foreign Affairs. “It is an acknowledgment that working for some amount of order in the messy Middle East requires dealing with rulers who preside over relatively stable states and who exercise influence outside their borders.”

But others wonder whether it’s worth it. “When the Biden visit is inevitably presented as advancing normalization between Israel and Gulf monarchs, we cannot ignore the uncomfortable reality that the accords have become a get-out-of-jail-free card for the brutal subjugation of democratic dissent,” wrote Ben Rhodes, a former Obama administration official. “How does that fit within a global struggle between democracy and autocracy?”

That’s a question Biden won’t want to answer.