Biden faces criticism for his trip to the Middle East

Correction: This transcript has been adjusted to identify Abdulrahman Al-Sarhan as the son of an American. He is not an American citizen. NewsHour regrets the error.

President Biden is departing for his first trip to the Middle East as president Tuesday. It is delicate diplomacy for an administration that’s pledged to put human rights first, but is also balancing Middle East realities, especially in Saudi Arabia. That’s where the president will spend Friday and Saturday. Nick Schifrin reports from Jerusalem, where the president will visit tomorrow.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight, President Biden is departing for his first trip to the Middle East as president.

    It is delicate diplomacy for an administration that has pledged to put human rights first. But it's also balancing Middle East realities, especially in Saudi Arabia. That is where the president will spend Friday and Saturday. Tomorrow, he will be in Jerusalem.

    And that's where Nick Schifrin begins our coverage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It's a city holy to three religions, but, this week, they raised three colors, the red, white and blue. They rolled out the red carpet and buffed the busts at the Israeli president's house, and they called out the cavalry ahead of President Biden's arrival.

    Israel and the U.S. want to focus on defense. Israel, the U.S. and regional Arab militaries are working together on air defense using Israeli technology, including the still-in-production Iron Dome lasers. They're designed to combat common enemy Iran and its own advancing missile technology.

    It's also an outgrowth of the Trump administration's efforts to normalize Arab-Israeli relations. What Biden will not announce? Changes to Trump administration policies, including the closure of the U.S.' Jerusalem Consulate that focused on Palestinian affairs and declaring Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank, not a violation of international law.

  • Hanan Ashrawi, Palestinian Political Leader:

    He is coming as an extension of Trump's policies, rather than as an antidote.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Hanan Ashrawi has been a Palestinian leader for decades.

  • Hanan Ashrawi:

    He's acting on the basis that you can ignore the Palestinians, you can weaken the Palestinians, you can bash them into submission, you can give them a few handouts and symbolic gestures, and they will lie down and die quietly.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Biden will announce support for a hospital network in east Jerusalem and for the two-state solution.

    President Biden and his advisers talk about how they believe in the two-state solution. Do you think…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Hanan Ashrawi:

    Yes.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You laugh. Do you think that's real?

  • Hanan Ashrawi:

    Look, there is a real disconnect between the verbal level and reality on the ground. It's not enough to say, we believe in the two-state solution.

    Israel has systematically destroyed the two-state solution by attempting to destroy the Palestinian state. We want not these empty words, not hollow promises. We want to see action that says we are serious.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the visit is about looking beyond the Palestinians.

  • Yair Lapid, Israeli Prime Minister (through translator):

    From Jerusalem, President Biden will fly to Saudi Arabia. He will carry with him a message of peace and hope from us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Saudi visit acknowledges Middle East reality. These days, the region's pomp and circumstance is often reserved for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He's known as MBS.

    And the 36-year-old's been on a regional tour as the man who will be king. He's been trying to modernize the kingdom under his Vision 2030, giving women more rights and curbing religious extremists. But U.S. officials also believe he is the source of the kingdom's crackdown on its critics.

    U.S. officials told "PBS NewsHour" he's believed to have personally blessed the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia's Istanbul Consulate. The following year, candidate Biden promised punishment.

  • President Joe Biden:

    We're going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them, in fact, the pariah that they are.

    Human rights will be the center of our foreign policy.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Despite those words and warnings, the administration says now is the time to visit Saudi Arabia to discuss the truce that's currently holding in Yemen and increase oil production.

  • Jake Sullivan, U.S. National Security Adviser:

    America's values, human rights are a strategic interest of the United States. So is energy security. So is stopping terrorism. So is seeking peace in a place like Yemen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that's not good enough for the kingdom's critics.

  • Areej Al-Sadhan, Human Rights Activist:

    MBS and the Saudi regime is going to take this as a green light that they can they can commit abuses without any accountability.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Areej Al-Sadhan is an American citizen whose brother Abdulrahman is the son of an American. He was working as a humanitarian in Saudi Arabia when he was arrested in 2018. He has been sentenced to 20 years in prison.

  • Areej Al-Sadhan:

    He got held in a secret prison and brutally tortured. And he was denied completely any communication with us, all of that because he dared to criticize, in an anonymous account, the abuses and the oppression, repression that is happening in the country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Saudi Arabia has launched reforms that MBS says are meant to — quote — "bolster the principles of justice, enforce transparency and protect human rights."

    Mohammed bin Salman's defenders say that he's a modernizer, that Vision 2030 will remake the country.

  • Areej Al-Sadhan:

    I would say actions speak louder than words. It has been even becoming more abusive than before. It is imprisoning people, torturing people, disappearing people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Al-Sadhan says she and her family have faced online death threats.

    And so why are you willing to do this interview and speak out?

  • Areej Al-Sadhan:

    Staying silent to me is a lot more risky than actually speaking up. If I stay silent, and I get targeted, I will be murdered in silence, and nobody knows about my case, nobody knows about my brother's case.

    But at least, if they're going to come after me and murder me, at least, right now, I'm known. My brother's case is known.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Despite those worries and requests by Saudi activists to President Biden he not travel to the kingdom, U.S. officials say that it is vital right now to talk to Saudi officials about furthering Saudi-Israeli cooperation and Israeli integration into the larger region — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, you have learned what concrete announcements we should expect from this trip.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, so a senior Israeli official tells me tonight that the prime minister of Israel and the president will sign a strategic understanding document, laying out where the two countries will go in the coming years.

    As we reported in the story, there will be that humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians announced by President Biden. And, also, independent analysts who have been briefed by U.S. officials saying that Saudi Arabia will allow overflights from Israel over the territory of Saudi Arabia and direct flights for Israeli Muslims during the Hajj to Saudi Arabia — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin reporting on this trip from Jerusalem.

    Thank you, Nick.

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