President Joe Biden said he raised the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi during a meeting Friday with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, pushing back against criticism that he ignored Saudi Arabia’s human rights record by traveling there.
“I said, very straightforwardly, for an American president to be silent on an issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” Biden said. “I’ll always stand up for our values.”
Biden recounted the moment to reporters following two hours of meetings with the crown prince and King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud.
“He basically said that he was not personally responsible for it,” Biden said of the crown prince. “I indicated that I thought he was.”
Biden has faced criticism for meeting with the crown prince, who U.S. intelligence officials believe ordered Khashoggi’s murder in 2018.
Biden’s meeting with MBS, as he is known, came after a multi-day visit to Israel and earlier events on Friday in East Jerusalem, where he tried to address the plight of Palestinians even as he acknowledged he can’t give them what they want.
- Biden’s fist bump:After arriving in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Biden greeted bin Salman with a fist bump, a move that provoked blowback from critics. The White House had said Biden would refrain from handshakes during his Middle East trip because of COVID-19 concerns – providing an excuse to avoid controversial interaction with Saudi leaders. Yet Biden shook many hands during his trip to Israel, and he shook hands with the Saudi king.
- Oil talks: Biden said he discussed oil with the Saudi leaders as part of efforts to ensure “global energy security.” Gas prices in the U.S. have soared over the past year, although it has started coming down the past month.
- More oil steps to come: “I’m doing all I can to increase the supply for the United States of America, which I expect to happen,” Biden said. “The Saudis share that urgency. And based on our discussions today, I expect we’ll see further steps in the coming weeks.”
- Other areas discussed: Biden said the meetings “accomplished significant business.” He pointed to Saudi Arabia’s agreement to open their airspace to “all air carriers” and a deal for U.S. troops to leave the country’s Terran Island to open it for tourism opportunities. He said they also discussed strengthening the Yemen ceasefire and Saudi investments in U.S. technology.
Fist pump sparks blowback
- Even some of Biden’s Democratic allies criticized the optics of Biden’s handshake. “If we ever needed a visual reminder of the continuing grip oil-rich autocrats have on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, we got it today,” Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who chairs the House intelligence committee, said in a tweet. “One fist bump is worth a thousand words.”
- Fred Ryan, the publisher and CEO of the Washington Post, slammed Biden’s greeting of bin Salman as “shameful” and “worse than a handshake.” In a statement posted on Twitter, Ryan said, “It projected a level of intimacy and comfort that delivers to MBS the unwarranted redemption that he has been desperately seeking.”
When asked how he can assure another murder like Khashoggi’s doesn’t happen again, Biden responded: “What a silly question. How could I possibly be sure of any of that? I just made it clear if anything occurs like that again, they’ll get that response and much more.”
Biden works to restore ties with Palestinians
Earlier Friday in Israel, Biden said the “ground is not ripe at the moment,” for restarting the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians as he still tried to offer empathy – and some hope – to the the latter.
The best way to do that, Biden said after announcing new humanitarian assistance, is to improve Palestinians’ day-to-day lives.
“The Palestinian people are hurting now. You can just feel it, your grief and frustration,” Biden said in a joint appearance in Bethlehem with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Nonetheless, Abbas said he stressed to Biden the importance of the “two-state solution” as a foundation for resolving the decades-long conflict.
Abbas said he’s looking forward to the U.S. reopening a consulate in East Jerusalem, something Biden has said he will do but that’s opposed by the Israeli government.
Key points on Palestinian meeting
- Ties frayed under Trump: Biden has focused on restoring ties with the Palestinians that had been ruptured during the Trump administration. Creation of an independent Palestinian nation alongside Israel has been the North Star of a negotiated settlement. In recent years, various developments have diminished that prospect, including the internal political divisions in both camps.
- Another setback: Some of the leverage Palestinians had was lost when Israel normalized relations with several Arab nations, a process started during the Trump administration and that the Biden administration is working to expand.
- Biden’s approach: While the Trump administration considered the so-called Abraham Accords a substitute for progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the Biden administration hopes to leverage normalization as a bridge toward progress on the issue.
- Small steps: As a sign of progress, the Biden administration pointed to the recent phone call between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the first contact at that level in several years.
Biden announced several initiatives to benefit the Palestinian people, including more than $316 million in aid for various programs.
- About $100 million will go to the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network to improve Palestinians’ access to health care services, such as oncology, dialysis, neo-natal intensive care and specialized maternity care.
- Another $201 million will go to a United Nations relief program to deliver critical services to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
- Additional initiatives include food security assistance, extending 4G digital access into the West Bank and Gaza, and restarting economic discussions between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Why it matters
East Jerusalem is predominantly Arab and claimed by Palestinian leaders as the future capital of their independent state.
Since then-President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017, Israeli government officials have participated in visits to East Jerusalem by U.S. officials. But they didn’t accompany Biden Friday.
Biden hasn’t announced any progress toward his commitment of reopening a consulate in Jerusalem, which had served as a de facto embassy.
Biden’s attempts to improve conditions for the Palestinians within the confines of the staunch support the United States typically extends to Israel, its top Middle East ally, is a balancing act between stark geopolitical realities and his lofty promise to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy.
In Bethlehem, Biden called it “heart-wrenching” that so many Palestinians have lost their lives to violence, including a journalist, Palestinian American Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead in May while reporting on an Israeli military operation in the occupied West Bank.
“The United States will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death,” Biden said, “and will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world.”
Several Palestinian journalists covering Biden’s remarks wore black “Justice for Shireen” T-shirts.
What they are saying
- After Biden’s remarks at Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem on Friday, a head nurse for the pediatric intensive care unit of the hospital told Biden “Thank you for your support, but we need more justice, more dignity.”
- “Israel must remain an independent, democratic, Jewish state,” Biden said during a news conference on Thursday. “The best way to achieve that remains a two-state solution for two people, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land, living side-by-side in peace and security.”
- At that same news conference, Lapid also said the two-state solution is “a guarantee for a strong democratic state of Israel with a Jewish majority.” But he is serving as an interim prime minister amid looming elections.
- “Biden is not in a position to talk about borders, security arrangements, or the administration of Jerusalem, but he can do what is needed for this moment, which is to remind everyone what the conflict is truly about and what any solution must take into account,” Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum wrote Wednesday in a blog for the Times of Israel.
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Contributing: The Associated Press