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Biden plans to tackle oil, human rights on trip to the Mideast

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Another big story we're following is President Biden's upcoming trip to the Middle East. This week, he'll meet nearly a dozen Mideast leaders in Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia, where he'll sit in on a summit of Arab leaders. One issue will be oil, with high gas prices on the minds of many Americans. But the White House is stressing a host of other issues, too, from Yemen to Ukraine. Human rights advocates wonder how their issues will fit in here. NPR's Daniel Estrin joins us now from Tel Aviv. Hey, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Miles.

PARKS: So the president had an op-ed run today in The Washington Post about his upcoming trip. What did he say?

ESTRIN: Yeah. He wrote that the purpose of his trip is to build a more secure and integrated Middle East that benefits Americans. He's very clearly pointing out domestic U.S. concerns. He says the U.S. is working with Saudi Arabia to stabilize oil markets, which have been disrupted by the war in Ukraine. And analysts say this is key on this trip. He wants to bring down gas prices ahead of the midterm elections. We do not expect any major breakthroughs on this trip, however. This is a lot more about taking small steps to stabilize the Middle East. Biden wants the Saudis to keep the cease-fire in Yemen, where there's been a major humanitarian catastrophe. He wants countries in the Middle East to find ways to come together on security, present a united front against Iran. And that includes Israel, and that's where he's starting his trip on Wednesday.

PARKS: Yeah. And he's following up on one of the Trump administration's foreign policy initiatives, the Abraham Accords, which open new ties between Israel and some Arab countries. How's Biden trying to expand them?

ESTRIN: Right. The Abraham Accords was about ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco. The big prize for Israel is Saudi Arabia. It's a major regional player. That is not going to happen on this trip that Biden is taking. We might see some small steps in that direction, but the Saudis are not ready to open full ties with Israel until Israel takes major steps toward peace with the Palestinians.

PARKS: And what about the Palestinians and their aspirations to end the Israeli occupation and form a state? How is the president planning to work with them?

ESTRIN: Well, the Biden administration always says it's still supporting the idea of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Biden will be meeting Israeli and Palestinian leaders, but he will not be restarting the peace process. He is encouraging small steps. The idea is not to significantly improve the situation but more to make sure things don't get worse, and there's been some violence recently. So he is going to be expected to announce some new funding for Palestinians. But on the whole, Palestinians are disappointed in Biden. They wish that they were higher on his priority list. Instead, the focus of this trip is the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia, and that's a big concern for Palestinians - Saudi Arabia, one of their biggest supporters in the region, getting close to Israel.

PARKS: Right. The president going to Saudi Arabia at all right now is controversial because of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018. How's the president defending that?

ESTRIN: Right. It's - and it's not only just about Khashoggi. The Saudi crown prince has been jailing dissidents. There was a mass execution recently. But Biden said in his op-ed this weekend he knows there are people who disagree with this trip. He said the U.S. did sanction some Saudi officials for Khashoggi's killing, and he says he does plan to speak about human rights on this trip. But he said his aim is to reorient, not to rupture relations with Saudi Arabia. And he says the U.S. needs to engage Saudi Arabia to counter Russia's aggression and outcompete China. So interests are trumping a lot of other things when it comes to Saudi Arabia.

PARKS: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv. Thanks so much, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.