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Joe Biden’s democratic values will be tested in the Middle East

The US president, scheduled to meet leaders in Israel and Saudi Arabia, may find that being committed to human rights is easier to say than do.

By Emily Tamkin

WASHINGTON DC – Joe Biden heads to the Middle East for his first trip as US president to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank this week. Biden has presented regional peace and stability as the reason for his visit, promising to work towards the continued normalisation of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

The trip will be yet another measure of whether Biden can close the gap between rhetoric and reality, with regard to his values on democratic and human rights. He has repeatedly stressed that the overriding foreign policy goal for his administration is proving that democracy can counter autocracy. But Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia is in tension with this.

As a candidate, Biden said that the Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman should be a “pariah”; as president, his administration speaks of the crown prince’s important regional role (the Biden administration has been adamant that peace, not the high price of gas, is the reason for the visit).

Rhetoric and reality break in Israel too. Biden’s meeting with Israel’s centrist interim prime minister, Yair Lapid, will, on one level, stand in sharp contrast with those held between the brash right-wing buddies Donald Trump and Binyamin Netanyahu. Nevertheless, it was reportedly Biden who intervened to keep the word “occupation” from appearing in the Democrats’ 2020 presidential election platform. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post ahead of his trip, Biden wrote: “In Israel, we helped end a war in Gaza – which could easily have lasted months – in just 11 days.” This is likely to ring hollow to those in the US and abroad who want Washington, which provides billions of dollars in aid to Israel, to be more critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. (Generally speaking, Democrats are more likely to take this stance than Republicans, and younger Americans are likelier to do so than their older counterparts.)

Those looking to hear more from Biden on the issue include the family of Shireen Abu Aqla, the Palestinian-American journalist who was shot dead in May. The US State Department concluded that gunfire from Israeli Defence Forces was “likely responsible”, but that the cause was “tragic circumstances”. In a letter to Biden (published by the Intercept), her family expressed a “sense of betrayal” and demanded a meeting with the US president during his visit to the region. Whether or not such a meeting goes ahead, this issue will resonate in the background of Biden’s trip. 

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“My views on human rights are clear and long-standing, and fundamental freedoms are always on the agenda when I travel abroad, as they will be during this trip, just as they will be in Israel and the West Bank,” Biden wrote in his Washington Post op-ed. Biden’s views may well be on the agenda. But it is one thing to say you are committed to human rights. It is quite another to put that into practice for those in the region – and on display for American voters back home.

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This article first appeared in the World Review newsletter. It comes out on Mondays and Fridays; subscribe here.

[See also: Has Joe Biden saved abortion?]