Biden to balance human rights and Middle East realities during visit to the region

President Biden this week is making his first trip to the Middle East as president with stops in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. But It will take delicate diplomacy for an administration that’s promised to make human rights central to its foreign policy as it tries to lower gas prices and advance cooperation. Shibley Telhami, of the Brookings Institution, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    This week, President Biden makes his first trip to the Middle East as president. He'll travel to Israel and the occupied West Bank and finally to Saudi Arabia to meet the king and Crown Prince. It is delicate diplomacy for an administration hoping to lower gas prices and advanced regional cooperation. But that's also promised to make human rights the center of its foreign policy.

    In today's Middle East, the pomp and circumstance is often reserved for this man, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 36-year-old has been on a regional tour as the man who will be king. He's trying to modernize the kingdom socially, economically and religiously.

    The U.S. officials also believe He's the source of the kingdom suppression. Intelligence officials say 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.

  • Joe Biden, U.S. President:

    I would make it very clear, we were not going to in fact sell more weapons to them. We were 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, President Biden says now's the time to visit Saudi Arabia to discuss the ongoing truce in Yemen and to increase oil production.

    The trip will also further integrate Israel into the region two weeks after Naftali Bennett handed the prime ministership to Yair Lpaid. Already, Israel, U.S. and Arab militaries are working together on a regional air defense alliance using Israeli missile defense technology.

    The regional cooperation is a product of a common enemy, Iran and its advancing missile technology. It's also the outgrowth of the Trump administration's efforts to normalize Arab-Israeli relations with Biden is not reversing Trump era policy changes in Israel, including the declaration that Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank are not a violation of international law.

    And what it means for the region, I'm joined by Shibley Telhami, professor at the University of Maryland, and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, let's start in the kingdom. In all of his public comments about this trip, President Biden has deemphasized the idea of the tripping about oil or even being about meeting the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, how big of a of an issue is oil actually for this trip? And that meeting with MBS?

    Shibley Telhami, University of Maryland: Well, obviously, the President wants to see, you know, lower oil prices and the Saudi Arabia to produce more, that's something that he does, but honestly, that would not have — would not have necessarily led him to go to Saudi Arabia.

    Saudi Arabia is important, used to deal with it, despite all of the reservations that people have, but going there is a completely different order. And I think the President himself said that he was doing it mostly to help Israel meeting getting normalization with Saudi Arabia. And I actually believe them because these relations heavily lobbied him to do so because it is a strategic prize for them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You commissioned a poll asking Americans if they support this trip, and there's an interesting result that you have only 24 percent, right, there at the top say they approve of this trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Why do you think that number is that case? And is the number also relatively low among Democrats?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    I think it's partly because Saudi Arabia and Israel are not exactly issues that resonate with the Democrats. Now, Republicans are not going to approve anything that by dust and their democratic constituency, obviously doesn't like the Saudis over human rights issue. And also because they were associated with big pro Trump and an ally of Trump and Jared Kushner.

    But on the Israeli side, frankly, duck back constituency is not where the President is. Most of them want Israel to even get — to be the U.S. even headed toward Israel and the Palestinians.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So let's talk about the Palestinians, U.S. officials I talked they say there will not be any announcements reversing Trump era policies for example reopening the consulate in Jerusalem or changing Trump era policies.

    What do you think President Biden's visit with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas how will that be received?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Well, let's be honest. This is a token visit. He's going to Saudi Arabia and Israel. And obviously, Democrats expect him included question Democrats expect them not to ignore the Palestinian issue. So you don't meet with our best and he'll probably about some aid to the Palestinians. But he wouldn't announce anything like maybe the consulate back to Jerusalem because Israelis don't want it.

    Is he going to stand there and express more empathy about the occupation and the need to end occupation and is he going to meet with the family of slain American Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, as many people have been demanding? And that's really the question that we are going to be watching for.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And each of these trips, of course, have deliverables, actual concrete actions, and announcements that come with them. Do you believe that the actions and decisions that come out of this trip will advance regional cooperation, which is what Israel wants, of course, or Israel, Saudi normalization, as you were talking about earlier?

  • Shibley Telhami:

    Well, obviously there's real issues, Saudi Arabia is the big prize. But they all understand that that's not going to happen on this trip. What is likely to happen is the Saudis will announce some measures toward normalization such as overflights or possibly in missile defense.

    Let's be clear, the Israelis will be winners here. Why? Because any signaling from the Saudis toward normalization, that's going to help them but even more importantly than that, think about it for that Arab ruler set. Arab rulers think they've long thought that the shortest path to Washington goes to Israel. Now it's on a whole different order, because our rule is believed that it was really the Israelis who helped bring Trump to Saudi Arabia, at the — when he first went on his first international trip.

    And in here, the president of the U.S. a Democrat who doesn't like Trump, who didn't like the Saudis, who call them a pariah. He's going to Saudi Arabia for Israel, that power matters a lot with Israelis as leverage as they deal with Arab rulers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Shibley Telhami joining us from Israel. Thank you very much.

  • Shibley Telhami:

    My pleasure.

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