Why is President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia and his meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) more controversial than was his visit to Israel? It’s a question that is more complex than a review of most media coverage might reveal—one that is both worth answering and also deeply revealing about the current situation in the Middle East.
Biden’s decision to meet MBS has been actively and rightly questioned because the young Saudi leader is responsible for the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a host of other human rights abuses.
That said, it is also true that Israeli leaders have created an apartheid state, consigned the Palestinian people to second-class citizenship, and been responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Palestinians, including recently, Shirin Abu Akleh—who like Khashoggi was a prominent journalist who actually had a stronger tie to the U.S. than Khashoggi. (He was a U.S. resident. She was a U.S. citizen.) Whether her death was intentional or just reckless, there is every reason to feel as much compassion for victims of unjustified or disproportional Israeli violence as that of other states in the Middle East.
Why do some commentators argue that it is unacceptable for Biden to meet with MBS in order to advance a wide range of U.S. interests—with regard to the price of oil, Iran policy, regional security, and competition with China—while they accept that it is OK to embrace Israel despite its abuse of the Palestinians? Why is “realism” embraced with Israel but considered a sell-out with Saudi Arabia? Is it because Israel is a long-time ally, vital to our interests in the region? Is it because it has potent political support in the U.S.?
No doubt it is both. It is also that as a (nominal) democracy, as a long-time friend of the U.S., and as a beacon of economic growth in the region, Israel has redeeming features that Saudi, as of today, lacks. But part of it, the hard part to admit, the part we must come to grips with, is that the American people, by and large, do not seem to care very much what happens to the Palestinian people.
The previous administration, that of Donald Trump, essentially chose to gloss over Palestinians altogether, and even to accept the further degradation of their situation. Biden, on the other hand, on this trip has devoted real time to meeting with Palestinians, acknowledged the tragedy of Abu Akleh’s death, and spoke again about U.S. support for a two-state solution. But in terms of concrete progress on Palestinian issues or the kind of confrontations that some have advocated with regard to the Biden meeting with MBS, there has been little to report.
The president made a resonant comment on Friday, drawing an analogy between the way his Irish Catholic ancestors were treated by the British and the way the Palestinians are being treated by the Israelis. It was classic Biden (even if it received some blowback online from people unaware of the long history of Irish and Palestinian solidarity.) Biden was drawing on his personal experience to find a source of empathy with the audience he was addressing. It was effective, clearly sincere, and there was some merit to the analogy.
But do Americans have anything more for the Palestinians than empathy? Are we guilty of offering them, too, our “thoughts and prayers?” Are we willing to accept that they suffer as long as the Irish did under the thumb of the British?
Yes, as the president reasserted, our policy is to support a two-state solution. But, is that a policy or a vague hope, a mantra we repeat more in the expectation that it will bring us inner peace than it will actually change anything on the ground?
We certainly do not, as a rule, pressure the Israelis in any meaningful or lasting way about changing their stance with regard to the Palestinians. They get all the arms they want to buy. They have a unique and privileged status among U.S. allies. In recent years, as Israel has carved away both Palestinian lands and rights, we have either continued to reward its government or, at worst, wagged our fingers in its direction.
An underappreciated reality is that, even as the president is taking flack for going to Saudi, the very fact that he could be the first U.S. president to fly directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, is that many of the Muslim-majority countries of the Middle East have come to the conclusion that other issues have now eclipsed the plight of the Palestinians atop the list of their most pressing priorities.
Among those issues, none stands out more than the growing threat posed by Iran. It has been, and will remain, a constant throughout Biden’s current overseas trip.
For example, one of the benefits of the new era in the region is an agreement among many countries—including Israel—to collaborate on strengthening air defenses. This is tied directly to the fact that one of the key drivers for normalization is strengthening defenses against what is perceived as a growing Iranian threat.
The role of Iran in this story is complex, central, and also telling. When the Obama administration entered into the nuclear deal with Iran, it strained U.S. relations with many of our friends and allies in the region (Israel and several Gulf states, specifically). That was in part because the Obama team did not communicate well enough with those friends and allies. It is also in part due to the fact that those friends and allies did not trust Iran to honor the agreement once it was struck. This led to pressure from some of those same friends and allies—and most notably Israel—to undo the deal, which the Trump administration did.
In retrospect, even top Israeli national security officials recognize that was a disastrous mistake. Iran, once years away from a nuclear weapon, is now months away. This, in turn, has ratcheted up the urgency among Iran’s neighbors to find a common defense, even if that meant doing what was once unthinkable: normalizing relations with Israel.
Meanwhile, Iran, which supported extremist groups among the Palestinians and elsewhere targeting Israel (allegedly to help the Palestinians) has inadvertently created a threat so great that it has done the impossible—it made Israel tacit allies with several Arab states. And those alliances, like everything else in this story, come at the expense of the Palestinians. (And let’s be honest, the only reason Iran wanted to “aid” the Palestinians was to harm Israel.)
None of this is to say those countries now normalizing relations with Israel are not going to use the leverage of their deeper ties with Israel to advocate for the Palestinians. There have already been notable initiatives to do so.
It is also not to say that normalization among previously warring nations is not desirable, or even a breakthrough. It is a big deal. It is one that is daily growing in benefits to the region.
One sign of its value is the fact that the Biden administration actively supports it, even though it was a Trump administration initiative. But the U.S., like all the countries taking part in this region-wide reset, must follow up statements of support for the Palestinians with the kind of pressure that leads to concrete progress on the issues that matter to them—enhanced security, stopping the construction of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and making real progress toward a two-state solution. (The Palestinians for their part, should, of course, also recognize that they would benefit from stronger, more effective leadership and from reduced association with a pariah state like Iran or with violent extremist groups.)
We can debate the proper balance between values-based foreign policy and realism until the cows come home. Successive U.S. administrations will strike the balance between the two differently, and their critics will howl one way or another.
We must not forsake our values and we must constantly use all the leverage we have on behalf of advancing them. We must also recognize that in the world as it is, many nations with which we must work to defend our vital national interests do not share all of our values. We will disagree with them from time to time on critical issues. But the lessons of history are clear on this point. To choose just one illustrative example, beating the Nazis was important enough to ally with the Stalin-led Soviets.
But one thing that realism and values-based foreign policy both dictate is to keep our eyes open to the consequences of our actions. Not only should the fundamental rights of the Palestinian people be protected—even if that means standing up to a nation that is and should be one of our closest friends—but we must recognize that failing to recognize and protect those rights will ultimately deeply weaken Israel, undercut its stability, negate its ability to call itself a democracy, further erode its standing in the world, and reduce the value Israel may offer to its partners regionally and worldwide.
The Palestinians are already second-class citizens, and we must not allow concern for a just future for them to become a second-class issue. The U.S. and all of our friends and allies should more actively advocate for the changes that will grant the people of Palestine the rights they deserve, not just because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is in our interests and those of all our friends and allies throughout the Middle East and around the world.
David Rothkopf's company, The Rothkopf Group, produces podcasts and events on international and domestic U.S. topics. One of its clients for such services is the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in the U.S. TRG does not lobby. The views in this column are Rothkopf's alone and do not represent those of TRG nor any of its clients.