US anti-Semitism envoy softens Saudi Arabia's image ahead of Biden visit

6 min read
11 July, 2022
Analysis: Deborah Lipstadt's trip, her first as the US State Department's anti-Semitism monitor, aimed to soften Riyadh's image while laying the groundwork for continued steps towards normalisation with Israel.

Ahead of US President Joe Biden’s trip to the Middle East, the State Department was also preparing for the first trip abroad for its Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism (SEAS), Ambassador Deborah E. Lipstadt.

According to Lipstadt, her trip to the Middle East - which included stops in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates - was meant to combat anti-Semitism in the region.

“I’m trying to see if there are ways we can address the normalizing of the treatment of the Jew and Jewish history and culture,” Lipstadt told the Religion News Service. “Jews have a rich history in this region, and that should be part of the conversation as well.”

But whatever Lipstadt might believe, the proximity of her visit to Biden’s trip indicates that there was a purely political motive behind the visit. And the result seems to bear this out.

"While Saudi Arabia still does not have normal relations with Israel, the relationship has thawed considerably over the past few years, as both countries are coming together to confront Iran"

Lipstadt insisted to reporters at a news conference last week in Abu Dhabi that her trip had nothing to do with Biden’s and that the timing was sheer coincidence.

But Biden’s trip has been fraught with controversy, and a great deal of that controversy was based on the very negative view most Americans have of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (often referred to as MBS). And it is undeniable that Lipstadt’s positive words about her time in the Gulf region serve as a counterargument to that criticism.

After meeting with the Saudi Foreign Ministry, Islamic Affairs Ministry, the Saudi Human Rights Commission, and the Muslim World League, Lipstadt said that she was “impressed with the changes in Saudi Arabia. I look forward to future cooperation, including in the fight against antisemitism”.

It isn’t entirely clear what Lipstadt saw that impressed her so much. Most of what she commented on were superficial changes and actions that took place during the Kingdom’s earlier attempts, during the Trump administration, to change its image in the United States.

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Lipstadt commented on the visit of Mohammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, the head of the Muslim World League to Auschwitz, the notorious Holocaust-era death camp. She also noted the Arab News (owned by the brother of MBS) having printed a “Happy New Year” to Jews that even included Hebrew lettering. Both events occurred in 2020, well before Joe Biden was elected president.

Lipstadt also cited revisions to Saudi textbooks that removed both anti-Semitic and anti-Christian rhetoric, a process that also began before the 2020 election.

These are, to be sure, positive steps and ones which every Jew should welcome. The fact that the Saudis very likely undertook them to ingratiate themselves to the Americans to counter the significant sentiment - both in the public and in Congress - in opposition to continued arms sales and military support for the Kingdom may make the moves cynical, but they are still important gestures.

While Saudi Arabia still does not have normal relations with Israel, the relationship has thawed considerably over the past few years, as both countries are coming together to confront Iran.

Biden's trip has been fraught with controversy, largely based on the very negative view most Americans have of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. [Getty]

The Saudis wish to move slowly on this path, but they do wish to move, and these gestures will allow them to keep the warming process going despite its slow pace, which both the Israelis and Americans would prefer to see sped up. It’s a high priority for the Biden administration.

But Human Rights Watch stated in their latest annual report that “Saudi Arabia announced important and necessary reforms in 2020 and 2021, but ongoing repression and contempt for basic rights are major barriers to progress. The near-total repression of independent civil society and critical voices impedes the chances that reform efforts will succeed”.

Like the issue of women’s rights in the country - another subject which contributes significantly to the negative impression of Saudi Arabia in the US, and which the HRW report says remains a significant problem - the Kingdom’s efforts at confronting anti-Semitism seem to be more cosmetic than sincere, complicating efforts by the White House to restore the warm relationship with Riyadh.

Perhaps Lipstadt, despite her claims to the contrary, is simply naïve about the Saudi motives and the depth of Saudi sincerity when it comes to human rights. Her beliefs aside, however, this trip cannot be separated from Biden’s and will certainly be seen as an attempt to massage the Saudis’ image.

"The real key to the Abraham Accords is Saudi Arabia and bringing Riyadh in is Biden's major long-term goal for the region"

“Joe Biden is in a difficult position because he spoke about Saudi Arabia as a global pariah in relation to the war in Yemen and the (Jamal) Khashoggi murder,” Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, told The New Arab.

“One of the Biden administration’s strategies for saving face and selling this trip to the American public is that his visit to Jeddah will be beneficial to Israeli security interests. This is a midterm election year in the US and Biden needs to come back from Saudi Arabia able to tell the media and American voters that he achieved some foreign policy wins while in the Middle East this month,” he added.

“I do not believe that Saudi Arabia is on the verge of entering the Abraham Accords, especially considering that King Salman is still on the throne, but if this trip can result in Saudi Arabia making some more mini-steps toward an unofficial normalisation, Biden would certainly sell that to the American media and public as a huge success from the standpoint of US and Israeli interests.”

The Abraham Accords - the normalisation agreement chiefly between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel - has brought Gulf countries, for the first time, into the Israeli-Arab rapprochement that, until now, had included only Jordan and Egypt. But the real key is Saudi Arabia and bringing Riyadh in is Biden’s major long-term goal for the region.

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But, as Cafiero says, the Saudis are in no rush to make this deal, as King Salman - who, despite handing over most of the control of the country to his son, MBS, is still the ruler - continues to believe that the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, and not the Abraham Accords, must be the basis for normalising relations with Israel.

But Biden needs to come back home with a significant policy gain, after the negative reaction his trip has provoked. A recent poll showed that only 24% of Americans approved of Biden’s trip, while slightly more disapproved. The more context that was given to respondents, the more the disapproval rose.

With oil prices starting to drop even before the trip (in accordance with OPEC’s announcement in June that it would increase production in July and August), Biden’s trip looks even less necessary. And the fact that he will not only go to the state he once labelled a “pariah” but will very likely be shaking hands with the man toward whom that label was primarily directed, MBS, raises the stakes for Biden politically.

Lipstadt’s trip, whether she thinks so or not, was part of Biden making the case that his foray to Saudi Arabia is worth the sacrifice of what he has claimed as American values on the altar of oil prices and regional strategy. Sadly, Lipstadt has added the fight against anti-Semitism to the values being so cynically sacrificed.

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

Follow him on Twitter: @MJPlitnick