Biden says he confronted Saudi prince over journalist’s murder

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Under widespread scrutiny after calling Saudi Arabia a pariah and criticizing the country’s human rights situation, US President Joe Biden met with Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Friday amid a whirlwind of the American in the Middle East. He greeted him with an embarrassed “punch”, which was widely exploited by the Saudi press and shown on state television.

The meeting was criticized by human rights activists for the evidence of the Saudi prince’s participation in the assassination of opposition leader Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote for the US newspaper Washington Post. Hence the greeting with a “punch”: Biden’s fear that a photo with a handshake could be seen as a kind of validation of Salman.

The president, however, tried to protect himself and told journalists, after meeting with the prince and other leaders in the country, that he confronted Salman about the murder and that he believed he was personally responsible for the journalist’s death.

“With regard to the killing of Khashoggi, I brought this up at the meeting, making it clear what I thought then and what I think about it now,” Biden told reporters. “I have said very frankly that an American president being silent on a human rights issue is inconsistent with who we are and who I am,” she said.

“He basically said he wasn’t personally responsible for it,” Biden said of the crown prince’s response during the meeting. “I said what I thought he was.”

Biden’s advisers suggested ahead of his arrival in Israel — the first stop on the Middle East tour — that the president would avoid handshakes due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, within minutes of arriving in Tel Aviv, Biden dismissed the precaution and shook hands with leaders he met, which he continued to do throughout his stay in the country.

This Friday, upon arrival in the port city of Jeddah, Biden was greeted by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, governor of Mecca province. Neither Prince Mohammed bin Salman nor the king attended the reception of the American president.

Despite the initial embarrassment, the meeting went off without major disruptions and the two countries made a package of announcements. In a statement released after Biden spoke with senior officials, including the crown prince, the United States welcomed the accelerated increase in oil production announced by OPEC, a group that includes Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The statement also says that the US and other peacekeepers will leave the island of Tiran, where they have been since 1978, between Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in a strategic area that leads to the Israeli port of Eilat. Washington also welcomed a Saudi move to open its airspace to civilian aircraft flying to and from Israel. Other announcements also covered a cooperation agreement on 5G and 6G mobile technology and cybersecurity.

The background to the trip to the country is the pressure on the president from the rise in fuel prices in the United States, which has impacted his approval rating. In addition to improving his relationship with the Saudi regime, one of the main US allies in the Middle East, Biden traveled to the region to push for an increase in oil production, which could lower the price of gasoline.

Earlier, before leaving Israel for Saudi Arabia, Biden met with the president of the Palestinian National Authority in Bethlehem and tried to appease criticism of his government intensified after the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May. Biden said he will insist on a full and transparent investigation of the case.

Dissatisfaction escalated after the United States said earlier this month that the shooting that killed the reporter during an action in the West Bank was likely from Israeli forces, but that the act should not be seen as intentional.

The Palestinian Authority leader reiterated the call for the US to open a consulate in East Jerusalem, remove the Palestine Liberation Organization from the list of terrorist organizations and allow the group to open an office in Washington.

Biden said he recognized that, after failed attempts to resolve the conflict with Israel, Palestinians were living in difficult situations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “We can feel the pain and frustration,” she said.

Biden’s meeting with Palestinian officials comes a day after meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, when talks focused on tightening deals to contain Iran’s nuclear weapons and the new partnership with India and the United Arab Emirates.

The Iranian public response came this Friday through the country’s foreign ministry on Twitter. The ministry said it would continue efforts to ease sanctions, but that it would “never back down on the inalienable rights of the great Iranian nation.” “The White House puppet show and Zionism in the region only gives us more determination,” she wrote.

This is Biden’s first trip to the Middle East as president.

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