When President Biden lands in Saudi Arabia on Friday, it will be the first visit by a U.S. president since American intelligence agencies assessed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved the operation that resulted in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
But a day ahead of his meeting with the crown prince, Biden stopped short of saying he would raise the issue directly, saying “my views on Khashoggi have been made absolutely, positively clear.”
“I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” Biden said at a press conference. When pressed, he said that he always brings up human rights, but said that his “position on Khashoggi is so clear — if anyone doesn’t understand it in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while.”
Biden emphasized that his reasons for visiting the kingdom are “much broader” and noted he will have the opportunity to promote U.S. interests at a summit with nine heads of the state from the region.
“I think we have an opportunity to reassert what I think we made a mistake of walking away from: our influence in the Middle East,” Biden said.
“We can continue to lead in the region and not create a vacuum — a vacuum that is filled by China and/or Russia against the interests of both Israel and the United States and many other countries,” he said.
Biden and Lapid say they’ll work together on Iran — but differ on the role of diplomacy
Biden spent much of Thursday in meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem. The leaders signed a joint agreement in which they committed to never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. The agreement said that the U.S. is “prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that.”
Biden said in an Israeli TV interview that the US would resort to military action against Iran as a last resort.
Lapid focused on the need for deterrence in his remarks. “Words will not stop them, Mr. President. Diplomacy will not stop them,” Lapid said. “The only thing that will stop Iran is knowing that if they continue to develop their nuclear program, the free world will use force.”
Biden said he has hopes for diplomacy and a return to the Iran nuclear deal, but noted he was waiting for a response from Iran. “We’ve laid out for the leadership of Iran what we’re willing to accept,” Biden said. “But we’re not going to wait forever.”
Biden expressed enthusiasm for deals negotiated by Trump White House
Biden is expected to meet with Palestinian Authoriy President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday. In his press conference with Lapid, Biden reiterated his longstanding support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But Biden spent more time talking about Israel’s growing relationship with its Arab neighbors in the region. “Israel integration in the region, Israel’s peace with its neighbors — these are essential goals,” Biden said.
The regional integration efforts are the stated goal of the Abraham Accords, deals brokered by the Trump White House in 2020 to normalize relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco.
It is one component of former president Trump’s foreign policy that the Biden administration has fully embraced.
“We’ll also continue building on the Abraham Accords, which I strongly support because they deepen Israel’s integration into the broader region and establish lasting ties for business, cooperation and tourism,” Biden said.
Biden noted that he will fly directly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — a sign of a stronger relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
Israeli Prime Minister Lapid indicated his country was also committed to the work of integrating itself into the region.
“Israel wants peace and believes in peace. We will never yield an inch of our security. We are obligated to be cautious at every step,” Lapid said. “But to any country, any nation that wants peace and normalization with us, we say ‘Ahalan wasahalan, shalom, welcome.'”
Additional reporting from Asma Khalid and Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem