President Biden on Thursday made no commitment to stand up to Saudi leaders later this week over the killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I always mention human rights, but my position on Khashoggi was so clear that if someone does not understand this in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, they simply were not around,” Biden. said at a press conference in Jerusalem.
Biden vowed during the 2020 election to make Saudi Arabia an international “rogue” over the assassination, which is believed to have been ordered by Saudi leaders, as well as other human rights violations. But he claimed on Thursday that it is important to resume interaction with a long-time ally to avoid creating a leadership vacuum in the Middle East. Biden, who travels to Saudi Arabia on Friday to meet with Saudi and other leaders in the region, says China and Russia will fill the gap if the United States fails.
Khashoggi, a dissident, was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. US intelligence agencies have concluded that the assassination was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia.
“The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia … is much wider,” he said. “This is to advance US interests.”
The administration says Biden is seeking to improve the supply chain and access to shipping, strengthen ties between Israel and its neighbors, and head off the growing threat of Iran developing nuclear weapons.
But at home, the trip is seen as an attempt to bring down high oil prices — one of Biden’s biggest political commitments — even as experts say any increase in Saudi production would have little impact on gas station prices.
The decision to go to Saudi Arabia has already generated a number of awkward moments and questions. Administration officials, hoping to avoid a photo of Biden shaking hands with Mohammed, suggested that Biden would not shake hands with any of the leaders due to concerns about COVID-19. But when he arrived at a rapturous welcoming ceremony in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, he shook hands with several Israeli officials.
White House officials have yet to say whether journalists will be allowed into the room when Biden meets with Mohammed on Friday. But they ruled out a joint press conference like the one Biden held in Jerusalem.
At that press conference, Biden defended America’s decision to continue diplomacy in attempt to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program opposed by Israel and Saudi Arabia.
After promising to protect Israel’s security, Biden offered support for an “independent democratic Jewish state” given the protracted conflict over the role of the Palestinians, who live predominantly in Israeli-occupied territories. Biden at the same time reaffirmed his support for a Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid issued a lengthy warning about talks with Iran, which he says seeks to destroy “the only Jewish state in the world.”
Biden advocates a return to the 2015 pact negotiated by the Obama administration and rejected by President Trump, which was aimed at limiting Iran’s ability to enrich uranium. Israel contends that the agreement did not go far enough in enforcing or preventing a renewed effort by Iran, especially after it eventually expired.
“Words won’t stop them, sir. The president. Diplomacy will not stop them,” Lapid said, standing at the podium next to Biden. “The only way to stop them is to put a real military threat on the table.”
“It shouldn’t be a bluff. But the Iranian regime must know that if they continue to deceive the world,” he continued, “they will pay a heavy price.”
Biden offered “the unwavering commitment of the United States of America to protecting Israel’s security.” But when asked, he declined to give a timetable for ending diplomacy with Iran, despite Israel’s claim that Tehran was simply buying time as it gets closer to building a weapon.
“We have outlined to the leadership of Iran what we are ready to accept,” Biden said. “We are waiting for their response. We’re not sure when that will be, but we’re not going to wait forever either.”
While the conflict between oil and human rights has dominated much of the discussion at home, the Iranian issue looms large here.
Biden has said several times during his visits to Lapid and other Israeli officials that he wants to promote further security cooperation between Israel and its longtime Arab adversaries. These closer ties were fueled by a mutual fear of Iran. In Saudi Arabia, Biden will also meet with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and six Gulf states as part of a regional conference.
Biden told reporters that he and Lapid talked “about how important I think it is for Israel to be fully integrated into the region.”
The Israelis and Saudis, whose governments have no official diplomatic relations, are working to strengthen cooperation against Iran. But they both hope the US-backed deal falls apart. If that is not the case, they are at least willing to engage in discussions with US officials and help shape a response if Iran does not comply.
To this end, Lapid and Biden signed a declaration that commits the US to “never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon” and “to use every element of its national power to ensure that outcome.”
Lapid’s visit is unusual in that he is the interim prime minister, having recently taken office following the dissolution of the government. He is campaigning to win the office for good in the November elections.
Biden tried to emphasize that America’s relationship with Israel is not about personalities or partisan politics, even as former President Trump and other Republicans have become more closely aligned with Israel’s conservative leaders. Later Thursday, Biden met with Benjamin Netanyahu, a former prime minister who was close to Trump and with whom the current president has a cold relationship.