5 Things Every American Should Know About President Biden's Controversial Middle East Tour

Key takeaways from Biden’s Middle East trip involve gas prices in America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, backlash over two journalists' murders and nuclear threats from Iran

joe biden, Mohammed bin Salman
Photo: Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty

Last week President Joe Biden spent four days touring the Middle East. His agenda included supporting Israel's integration into the Arab world, ensuring limits on Iran's nuclear program and talking with the world's largest producers of oil and gas amid rising American pump prices.

Biden's trip was not well-received by everyone, summoning criticism that he went too easy on Israel and Saudi Arabia, and too hard on Palestine.

Biden Reaffirmed and Bolstered American Support for Israel

Biden began his tour in Israel. There, he met with many of the country's leaders, including ​​Prime Minister Yair Lapid, President Isaac Herzog and former Prime Minister Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his opening remarks, Biden said "the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep." He later added, "As long as we're the United States, you will never, ever be alone," emphasizing American financial and militaristic support for Israel, particularly in face of Iranian military threats.

Biden says talks with Israeli leaders focused on ensuring "no nuclear Iran," expanding 4G cellular network technology to the Palestinian Territories and "trying to build a moderate coalition here in the Middle East" for Israel.

Biden's visits to Israel and Palestine
President Joe Biden with Israel President Isaac Herzog. AP/Shutterstock

A longtime supporter of Israel, Biden has visited the country 10 times over the past 50 years. Further emphasizing his support for the country, he boldly declared, "You don't have to be Jewish to be a Zionist, and I'm a Zionist," upon arriving in the country.

On Thursday evening, Biden was awarded the highest civil medal given by Israel, the Israeli Presidential Medal of Honor. President Herzog said the medal was given "in recognition of the strong support for Israel you have consistently demonstrated, and the depth of the friendship our nations share."

Later, when Biden met with the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman he announced that "Saudi airspace is now open to flights to and from Israel. This is the first tangible step in the path of what I hope will eventually be a broader normalization of relations."

Biden Cautiously Acknowledged Palestinians' Aspirations

On Friday, Biden visited Bethlehem, Palestine, where he met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Biden announced new contributions of $316 million in support of Palestinians in both of the Palestinian Territories–Gaza and the West Bank. He also spoke to technological advances including rolling out 4G by the end 2023 and ensuring food security for Palestinians.

Many Palestinians were dissatisfied with the new initiatives or funding, as their aspirations are instead set on achieving statehood and halting U.S. support of Israel.

President Abbas said to Biden in a speech, "After 74 years of the Nakba displacement and occupation, isn't it not the time for this occupation to end and for our steadfast people, again, to gain their freedom and independence, and for the hopes of our young men and women, whom we cherish and trust their creativity, to achieve a promising future without occupation?"

Biden's visits to Israel and Palestine
Palestinian protestors during President Biden's visit. ap/shutterstock

Conflict between Israel and Palestine has engulfed the region for decades. There are various competing land claims and shifting borders as a result of a series of wars and diplomatic arrangements. Currently, an armed, Israeli border wall exists along most of the border between Israel and the West Bank.

According to Amnesty International, Israel commits "apparent war crimes and possible crimes against humanity" against Palestinians, while Human Rights Watch calls Israel's actions "crimes of apartheid."

Biden Didn't Hold Israel Accountable for Slain American Palestinian Journalist

During a planned media appearance with Abbas in Bethlehem, Biden was greeted by an "empty chair facing the podium" with a picture of slain American Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in her bulletproof press vest. Written in Arabic across the poster were the words "The voice of Palestine," according to White House correspondent Aurelia End.

Biden's visits to Israel and Palestine

The president notably did not meet with the Abu Akleh's family after her sister authored a letter to Biden seeking justice and accountability regarding Abu Akleh's murder. According to CBS News, Secretary of State Antony Blinken invited the family to the United States, but the family wished to see Biden on his tour.

Abu Akleh was a renowned journalist in the region. She was recently killed in May while reporting on a raid by the Israeli Defense Forces in Jenin in the West Bank. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights' found that "Israeli forces were behind the fatal shooting of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh."

Despite these findings, the U.S. Department of State says it "could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed [her]," but found that "gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh." Palestinian officials and citizens have criticized the U.S.'s failure to hold Israel accountable in the matter.

In Bethlehem, Biden said to Abbas: "The United States will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death and will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world," despite not having publicly raised the issue to Israeli leaders during the trip.

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Responsible for a Different Journalist's Death Hosted Biden to Mend Relations

The relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been incredibly tense since the Saudi government's involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist. Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in late 2018.

A 2019 report by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner ruled that "his killing was the result of elaborate planning involving extensive coordination and significant human and financial resources. It was overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level officials. It was premeditated."

Two years later, in 2021, the Biden administration released a declassified intelligence report on the killing which concludes that the Saudi "Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi." Since Khashoggi's murder, Biden vowed to make the country a "pariah," isolating it from the U.S. and its neighbors.

But, Biden's visit seemed to do the opposite. Despite the tense history and the crown prince's failure to acknowledge his direct role in Khashoggi's death, Biden still met with the leader and even fist-bumped him. The president faced backlash from both sides of the aisle for his hand movement, with many believing that it resets U.S.-Saudi relations regardless of human rights abuses.

joe biden, Mohammed bin Salman
Royal Court of Saudi Arabia/Anadolu Agency via Getty

After the leaders met, Biden addressed questions at a press conference, stating that he directly brought Khashoggi up to the crown prince, who replied that "he was not personally responsible for" the journalist's death. He told reporters, "For an American president to be silent on the issue of human rights is inconsistent with who we are and who I am. I'll always stand up for our values."

The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, said, "The Crown Prince responded to President Biden's remarks on ... Khashoggi after quite clearly — that this crime, while very unfortunate and abhorrent, is something that the kingdom took very seriously (and) acted upon in a way commiserate with its position as a responsible country."

According to CNN, Saudi officials retorted by bringing up the abuse at Abu Ghraib, a notorious prison in Iraq that was run by the U.S. military where human rights violations were rampant. The foreign minister added, "These are issues, mistakes that happen in any country, including the U.S. The Crown Prince pointed out that the U.S. has made its own mistakes and has taken the necessary action to hold those responsible accountable and address these mistakes just as the kingdom has."

Biden Failed to Get Saudi Arabia on Board with Increasing Oil Supply for Americans

By the end of Biden's visit, Saudi Arabia had not publicly pledged to increase oil supply to Americans, an initiative Biden was seeking to accomplish during his tour. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has interrupted global oil supply, leading gas at the pump to surpass $6 per gallon in the U.S.

Biden traveled to the Middle East amid an era of extraordinarily high gas prices for Americans, which was speculated to be a major motivation of the trip. After meeting with Saudi leaders, Biden said, "Based on our discussions today, I expect we'll see further steps in the coming weeks," presumably referring to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) meeting in August, of which Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait are members.

The Saudis hosted the GCC+3 summit, with leaders from the Gulf Cooperation Council — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, UAE — as well as three other nations: Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. Outside of energy sources, the president also spoke about "Iran's destabilizing activities" in the region, adding that the administration is "pursuing diplomacy to return constraints on Iran's nuclear program."

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Ultimately, Biden's trip to the Middle East conveyed renewed U.S. interest and investment in the region. Over the course of four days, Biden and his team emphasized American support for Israel and diplomatic avenues to limit Iran's nuclear capabilities — while overlooking various human rights abuses in the region and unsuccessfully guaranteeing increased oil supply for Americans.

Many experts believe the trip was not particularly successful for Biden, and instead the Arab leaders, particularly Crown Prince MBS, got more out of his visit.

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