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Biden heads to the Middle East for meetings


What's President Biden hoping to accomplish when he sets out for the Middle East tonight? Well, for one, he's looking for ways to ease high gas prices here in the U.S. And the president says he's seeking more stability in the Middle East, like a truce in the disastrous war in Yemen and a path to prevent violence between Israelis and Palestinians from boiling over. We're joined by three of our correspondents in the Middle East who are covering this trip. Asma Khalid and Daniel Estrin are in Jerusalem, and Fatma Tanis is in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Good to have you all here.




KHALID: Thanks for having us.

SHAPIRO: Asma, I want to start with you as a White House correspondent. What is prompting President Biden to take this trip now?

KHALID: You know, the president is not coming to this region with grand plans. There is no talk of brokering a historic peace between Palestinians and Israelis. This is kind of a tuneup trip. You know, the White House has a pragmatic view of the region. It has said many times that its goal is to promote a secure, stable Middle East that does not erupt into violence. But, you know, I want to point out, Ari - that this trip comes 18 months into Biden's presidency after he's already gone to Europe and Asia, other parts of the globe. And it seems later than some of his recent predecessors, which to me signifies the decreasing priority of this region in this administration. They believe the U.S. role is different in the Middle East than it was 20 years ago at the start of the Iraq war. You know, that being said, analysts I've spoken with do see one immediate impetus. They say were it not for Russia's invasion of Ukraine and rising oil prices, it's really not so clear the president would be going on this trip at this particular moment.

SHAPIRO: All right - so low expectations. What does Biden hope or expect to get out of the trip?

KHALID: You know, there is pressure on the president to show he's doing as much as possible to bring down gas prices. And one way to do that would be to meet with the Saudis and convince them to release more oil. But I should mention, experts have very little expectation that this trip will actually lead to Americans paying substantially less at the pump. And the president has also been publicly insisting that this trip is not about oil. He says it's about regional stability and encouraging Israel's integration into the region. And, you know, some of that, no doubt, has to do with isolating Iran and ensuring other powers, whether it's Russia or China, do not dominate the region. But, you know, I also want to point out, Ari, that the president really believes in the power of face-to-face negotiations. And on this trip, he's expected to have face time with 11 leaders from the region in just a few days. And it'll be interesting to see if there's any sort of tangible progress that he's able to get out of those meetings.

SHAPIRO: That is a large number in a short amount of time. Let's talk about what those other leaders want to get out of Biden. Daniel, President Biden's going to meet with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. What's he looking for?

ESTRIN: Yeah. Abbas wants a lot of things that Biden might not be able to deliver on. First of all, the Palestinian president wants reassurances that Palestinians will not be left behind when Biden advances Israel's relations with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia. Abbas also wants Biden to reverse a lot of Trump's policies that favored Israel and hurt Palestinians. Abbas, for instance, wants the U.S. to reopen diplomatic offices for Palestinians that Trump closed in Jerusalem and in Washington. That's going to be really hard for Biden to deliver on on this trip.

You know, Abbas also wants Biden to promise any kind of horizon for Palestinian independence. Biden will offer words and support, but he's not restarting a peace process. So he is going to announce some economic gestures, we're told, of aid to Palestinian hospitals. And the U.S. is also encouraging Israel to announce its own steps for Palestinians. They're going to be announcing construction permits for Palestinian building in the West Bank. Israel's thinking about giving Palestinians faster internet - so economic steps - and that's about it.

SHAPIRO: Biden's also meeting with Israeli caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, as Israel is in political upheaval with another election scheduled for November. What are they going to focus on? And is there really much that can be done when there is so much uncertainty about the future of Israeli politics right now?

ESTRIN: There is a lot of uncertainty. And so what they are going to be doing is they're going to be putting out a joint statement of principles on the future of the relationship between the countries in the years to come. But really, what this is also about is Biden just trying to make a good impression on Israelis. You know, Trump had a lot of support from Israelis. Israelis are still sizing up Biden. And Lapid and Biden have something in common, which is that they're both political moderates facing elections, both facing the possibility of right-wing populists returning to power.

SHAPIRO: Let's pivot to Saudi Arabia. Fatma Tanis, you are in Jeddah, where Biden is going to sit in on a summit of Arab leaders, which had been planned before Biden's visit. The focus of this part of the trip is the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. What are the Saudis looking for there?

TANIS: You know, Ari, this is a big moment for Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. Amid ongoing criticism of human rights abuses in the kingdom, it's a sort of validation for the crown prince who needs this kind of engagement on the world stage to fulfill his big plans to modernize his country, which he calls Vision 2030, and to make Saudi Arabia less dependent on oil sales. He really needs investments from places like Silicon Valley, for example. And so the Saudis will really be looking to prove the kingdom as a strategic partner for the U.S.

And, of course, one big thing on the Saudi agenda is Iran. You know, in recent years, the Saudis and other Gulf nations have struggled with what they see as inconsistent U.S. policy in the Middle East. And they feel like they have had to deal with Iran on their own at times, including during attacks on their own territory without the U.S. coming to their defense. And on the issue of the Yemen war, the Saudis appear to be in a stalemate there after years of fighting. The U.N. says hundreds of thousands of civilians have died, and the Saudis now might be looking for a way out. At the same time, they are likely interested in buying more weapons from the U.S., which Biden suspended because of what they had been doing in Yemen.

SHAPIRO: So if this is a validation for Mohammed bin Salman, Asma, how does the Biden administration explain what appears to be a real 180?

KHALID: That is a good question, Ari. We've seen a shift in tone, a shift in rhetoric from the president. And he's had a real delicate balancing act. There are a number of strategic, regional priorities that are important to the Saudis that are also important to this White House. Take, for example, Yemen or Iran or even energy. And, you know, at the same time, the president does remain under enormous pressure from human rights groups at home, as well as fellow Democrats within his own party who question why exactly he is going to Saudi Arabia. And so over the weekend, the president preemptively defended his decision with an op-ed in the pages of The Washington Post. He wrote that his goal from the start had been to, quote, "reorient, not rupture, relations with a country that has been a strategic partner for 80 years."

SHAPIRO: OK. Well, we've talked about what might come out of the Israeli-Palestinian meetings. What about in Saudi? Fatma, what could be reasonable expectations for agreements that might be reached in that round of meetings?

TANIS: Right. You know, as Asma mentioned earlier, this is basically a visit to maintain the relative stability in the region right now. So we'll see efforts to keep the Yemen truce that's been ongoing for three months. All parties will rally around what the U.S. calls the strategy to contain Iran. And on the relationship between Israel and Saudi Arabia, we've seen baby steps here. No expectations at the moment for major announcements, but they will be building on the progress that's already been made. On the issue of oil, you know, the Saudis are already producing near their capacity. There's not much more that they can do. So they will try to stabilize the oil market. But again, analysts say that's unlikely to change prices at the pump too much.

And, of course, there is human rights - Saudi activists I've talked to who are living abroad because they can't speak freely in the kingdom. For them, this visit is a big blow to the human rights cause. You know, they say they're concerned about how the crown prince will act afterward and whether this will embolden him. They will be watching for Biden to bring up human rights while he's here in Saudi and also how the president will interact with the crown prince - you know, whether he will be friendly. And this is something that the world will be watching for, too.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Fatma Tanis, Asma Khalid and Daniel Estrin. Thanks to all three of you.

TANIS: Thank you.

KHALID: Thank you, Ari.

ESTRIN: Thank you.


Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.