Middle East

Biden's Middle East Trip Pits Human Rights Against Realpolitik

U.S. officials want to reset relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel amid rising gas prices and new security challenges


President Joe Biden will travel to Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia in July as part of an effort to rebuild relationships in the Middle East and North Africa. Human rights groups aren't pleased.

"Biden should not normalize the killing and jailing of journalists, but should instead demand accountability and the release of journalists behind bars," said the Committee to Protect Journalists, a group that fights for press freedoms. On his stop in Saudi Arabia specifically, 13 human rights organizations warned that "efforts to repair the U.S. relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia without a genuine commitment to prioritize human rights are not only a betrayal of your campaign promises, but will likely embolden the crown prince to commit further violations of international human rights and humanitarian law." 

Outrage about Biden's visit to Israel stems from the recent death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American reporter for Al-Jazeera who was shot in the head while covering an Israeli military operation in Jenin, a large Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank. Eyewitnesses have alleged she was intentionally killed and targeted by Israeli soldiers, despite wearing a press vest. 

The Israeli government has stonewalled an investigation into Akleh's death due to disagreements with the Palestinian Authority about custody of the bullets recovered at the scene. "We saw around four or five [Israeli] military vehicles on that street with rifles sticking out of them and one of them shot Shireen. We were standing right there, we saw it," one eyewitness told CNN. The same eyewitness also attested that no Palestinians present at the scene were armed, a claim which contradicts official Israeli reports that both sides were carrying guns that morning.

Akleh's death has complicated the Biden administration's messaging around the Israel visit. "We've made clear our view to Israel and the Palestinian Authority that we expect…[a] thorough, transparent, and impartial investigation into the circumstances of her killing and in a manner that culminates in accountability," said Ned Price, a spokesman for the State Department, stopping short of condemning the soldiers who had allegedly opened fire on a group of unarmed journalists.

"[The Abu Akleh case] is just another example of the administration's deferential approach to the Bennett government," Dov Waxman, UCLA professor and director of the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, tells Reason. In Waxman's view, the Biden administration has focused on preserving the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who appears to be a more even-keeled geopolitical partner than former right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Bennett's coalition, which has united right-wing Jewish parties with Arab parties for the first time in Israel's history, is also fragile. 

"They've been very careful to avoid doing anything that would create a kind of public dispute between themselves and the Bennett government, or doing anything that could put the Bennett government in a precarious position domestically," Waxman says.

"At the end of the day, the priority for the Biden administration is the survival of the current Israeli government and keeping Netanyahu out of power," Waxman says. "That comes at the place of its relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the [Palestinian Liberation Organization]."   

Human rights groups, meanwhile, want to see more action by the United States on the Abu Akleh case. "It feels like a betrayal giving this crowd meetings," Sherif Mansour, a journalist and human rights activist, says. "This has always been a test for Biden's rhetoric on human rights and democracy."

Because she was an American citizen, Abu Akleh's murder could be investigated by the FBI. Mansour wants the Biden administration to pursue this option in addition to pressuring both Israel and Palestine to share information so a proper investigation can take place. 

Last summer, during a wave of protests, the Israeli government bombed the office building that housed the Associated Press's Gaza bureau. Since 1992, the Committee to Protect Journalists has reported over 20 journalist deaths in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, some that seemed intentionally targeted like Abu Akleh.

The U.S. response to Abu Akleh's murder has drawn comparisons to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi Arabian journalist and American resident employed by The Washington Post. Khashoggi was killed in 2018 by Saudi agents in Turkey at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, allegedly over his reporting, which was critical of Saudi foreign policy and the crown prince's style of governance. With Biden expected to make a stop in Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, the comparison between the two murders has become all the more salient. 

Though Biden appears willing to overlook Khashoggi's death in order to shore up America's access to Saudi oil, he is at least on record as explicitly having condemned that murder. At a November 2019 primary debate, Biden said he would "make [Saudi Arabia] the pariah that they are" and stop arms sales to the Middle Eastern nation. A month after Biden took office, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines released a government report confirming that the Crown Prince directed the assassination. The administration also delayed most weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, in light of its continued involvement in Yemen's brutal civil war. 

Jon Alterman, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, notes that there are issues on the agenda that go well beyond oil prices. He points to the administration's Iran strategy, especially as the U.S. attempts to limit the expansion of Iran's nuclear program, and Saudi Arabia's work on hydrogen extraction as examples of complex issues that U.S. and Saudi officials will discuss. 

For many Middle East analysts, Biden's trip signals pragmatism. "A successful foreign policy for a global power such as the US cannot choose values over interests," wrote Council of Foreign Relations president Richard Haass in a recent article. "What the Biden administration is contemplating in Saudi Arabia appears to be righting the balance."

In Alterman's view, Khashoggi's murder must be weighed like all other factors. "As long as [abuses] continue, they are going to inhibit Americans' willingness to engage with the kingdom broadly and Americans' confidence that the system in Saudi Arabia is transparent and fair and represents an opportunity for them."

"But that's not to say that abuses in Saudi Arabia automatically disqualify the United States [from] having anything to do with the kingdom," he continues. "That strikes me as not the right response."