The administration of US President Joe Biden seemed keen not to push historically close ties with oil-rich Saudi Arabia to a dead end last week after announcing that it has determined that the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman should be granted immunity in a case brought against him by the fiancée of the late Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was brutally murdered and dismembered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on 2 October, 2018.
International human rights organisations noted that it was Biden’s own administration that kickstarted its term in office two years ago by releasing a US intelligence report claiming that the Saudi Crown Prince had personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder.
In a court filing made on 17 November by the US Justice Department’s (DOJ) lawyers at the request of the State Department in the case against Bin Salman, they pointed out that he was made Saudi prime minister two months ago and as a result qualifies for immunity as a foreign head of government. The filing was made late on Thursday night just before the court’s deadline for the Justice Department to give its views on the immunity question and other arguments the prince has made for having the lawsuit dismissed.
“Mohamed bin Salman, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, is the sitting head of government and, accordingly, is immune from this suit,” the filing read, while also calling the murder “heinous.” As crown prince, Bin Salman was not entitled to sovereign immunity, which would normally just include a head of state, head of government, or foreign minister.
A month before the midterm elections for the US Congress on 8 November, the ties between the US and Saudi Arabia were clearly becoming strained. US officials were furious, and threatened retaliatory measures, after the Saudis pushed for an OPEC decision in early October to cut oil production by an unprecedented two million barrels.
Biden and the Democrats in Congress officially charged that the Saudi move amounted to teaming up with Russia to provide Russian President Vladimir Putin with much-needed money to fund the ongoing war in Ukraine. Yet, what was more worrying to Biden’s Democratic Party ahead of the elections was that this decision could lead to an increase in domestic US oil prices amid unprecedented inflation, pushing more Americans to vote for the rival Republican Party.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that the Saudi decision to cut oil production came only a few months after Biden practically swallowed his tongue on pledges he had made during his election campaign to “isolate” Saudi Arabia and turn it into a “pariah” for the alleged direct involvement of the Saudi Crown Prince in the killing of Khashoggi.
In July, Biden personally travelled to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and held his first ever meeting with Bin Salman. He also participated in a regional summit that included all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq. After taking office, the US president had refused to meet the crown prince and had limited direct contacts with the father Saudi King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz.
While White House officials repeatedly attempted to claim that the reversal in Biden’s stand had nothing to do with the US desire to increase Saudi oil production after the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine, and that the Jeddah summit was aimed at discussing peace in the Middle East, the writing was on the wall in the form of oil.
US officials also claimed that the Saudis had taken them by surprise by reducing OPEC oil production and that they had not adhered to understandings they thought they had reached to increase oil output at a time when Europe has also been looking for all possible alternatives to compensate for the suspension of Russian gas and oil exports.
Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée brought the lawsuit against Bin Salman and 28 others in October 2020 in the Washington Federal District Court. They alleged that a team of assassins “kidnapped, bound, drugged, tortured, and assassinated” Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and then dismembered his body. His remains have never been found.
Yet, while the move to grant Bin Salman immunity might be aimed at cooling the US confrontation with Saudi Arabia, perhaps in the hope that it will reverse its decision to cut oil production and also order an increase, the Biden administration has also got into another heated dispute with its closest regional ally, Israel.
A top Israeli official confirmed last week the existence of a US investigation into the killing of Palestinian-American Aljazeera Arabic correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, who was intentionally shot dead by an Israeli soldier in the West Bank town of Jenin in May, despite the fact that she was wearing body armour with the word “Press” written on it in large letters.
Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defence Minister Benny Gantz have both sharply criticised the reported decision by the FBI to investigate Abu Akleh’s murder. They said Israel’s government would not cooperate with the US probe, calling it a “mistake.”
Gantz, who revealed details of the previously unknown FBI investigation, tweeted last week that “we will not cooperate with an external investigation and will not enable intervention in internal investigations.”
The Palestinian Authority (PA), Abu Akleh’s family, and independent investigations by several human rights groups and international media outlets have all reached the conclusion that the late reporter was intentionally shot at by an Israeli soldier.
Israel had initially insisted that it was impossible to determine who had killed Abu Akleh, claiming her shooting had taken place amid an exchange of fire with Palestinian fighters in Jenin. However, after pressure from the US, it said that Abu Akleh was most likely “unintentionally” killed by a bullet fired by an Israeli soldier.
A US State Department-led forensic examination in July of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was inconclusive, but found it most likely that she was killed by unintentional Israeli fire.
US media reports have stated that the Biden administration has conveyed to its Israeli counterparts that it was not behind the FBI’s decision and that it was taken independently by the DOJ. Yet, the Israeli media and expected newcomers in the upcoming Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, considered the most extreme and right-wing in the history of the country, have found the US assurances hard to believe.
It is no secret that there is no love lost between Netanyahu and the Biden Administration, which is seen as an extension of former Democratic president Barack Obama. Obama lashed out at Netanyahu while in office for vehemently opposing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and Netanyahu went as far as to address the US Congress directly in order to try to convince them to reject the deal despite personal pleas from the former US president.
Twenty Democratic Senators have already signed a letter addressed to Biden asking for concrete action and accountability for Abu Akleh’s murder. Meanwhile, Netanyahu has not hidden his hope that former president Donald Trump, whom he has dubbed as Israel’s closest friend, will win a second term in office in 2020 and defeat Biden.
The revelation of the FBI investigation into Abu Akleh’s death is considered a message to Netanyahu from the Biden administration that it will not tolerate extreme violations of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories or further unilateral decisions such as the annexation of the Occupied West Bank, which extremist ministers in Netanyahu’s cabinet are likely to push for.
Caroline Glick, a columnist at the right-wing Jewish News Syndicate, has claimed that the Biden administration has ordered the FBI probe into Abu Akleh’s murder “because it wants a crisis with Israel”.
She added that “even if the crisis passes quickly, the incoming [Netanyahu] government needs to understand that so long as the Democrats are in power, the next crisis is just a progressive rally away.”
“As the midterm elections demonstrated, today there are two Americas, not one. The Republican America, led by the likes of Senator Ted Cruz, Governor Ron DeSantis, and former president Donald Trump, who is the best friend Israel has ever had. The Democratic America hates Israel and the Republicans. They view both as fundamentally illegitimate.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.