Jul 15, 2022 - Podcasts

High stakes for Biden’s Mideast trip

President Biden escaped his low approval ratings here in the U.S., this week, with a warm welcome in Israel – kicking off a trip to the Mideast to meet with nearly a dozen leaders. It’s Biden’s first trip to the region since taking office, after campaigning on promises like holding Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and reviving the Iran nuclear deal.

  • Plus: the rollout of a new national suicide hotline number.

Guests: Axios' Barak Ravid and Adriel Bettelheim

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird, Alex Sugiura, and Ben O'Brien. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.


NIALA BOODHOO: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Friday July 15.

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: the rollout of a new national suicide hotline number.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: high stakes for Biden’s Mideast trip.

President Biden escaped his low approval ratings here in the US this week with a warm welcome in Israel, kicking off a trip to the Mideast to meet with nearly a dozen leaders. It's Biden's first trip to the region since taking office after campaigning on promises like holding Saudi Arabia accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Axios’ Barak Ravid joins us now from Tel Aviv. Hey Barak.


NIALA: So President Biden actually went viral during this trip with a video from his visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. How has he been received?

BARAK: Well, it's Biden's 10th trip to Israel. He knows so many people here. And a few days before he traveled to Israel, an acquaintance of mine had a conversation with him and he asked him, “President, what's your goal from this trip?” And he said, “You know, I just want the Israeli people to know how much I love them. And I think it's been achieved because from the minute he landed in Israel, like the first thing he said, President Herzog on the tarmac was, “Oh man, I really feel at home.” And then he went to Yad Vashem and met two Holocaust survivors. And he was walking towards them and they were sitting on chairs. So they stood up and he just told them, “No, no, no, no, no, sit down.” And when he got to their chairs, he went down on his knees and started talking to them and it was really an amazing sight, when you think about it: the leader of the free world, bending down to talk with two Holocaust survivors – and it went viral on social media and I think that basically on day one, he already achieved what he wanted on the Israel part of this trip.

NIALA: But of course there are many more parts to this trip – you actually had a scoop on the next leg of his trip, you've told us before about the U.S. quietly negotiating a deal to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. What have we learned?

BARAK: The Israeli government approved the parameters of this deal on the two strategic islands in the Red Sea and this deal is important because this is the foundation that the Saudis are supposed to take unprecedented normalization steps towards Israel. It is significant because there was never any deal, or any even like understanding between Israel and Saudi Arabia and if everything will fall into place, this will be quite a big achievement.

NIALA: Biden has had strong words about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, promising to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” over its human rights abuses, including this murder, but Biden is visiting the kingdom as part of this trip. What are we expecting Biden to say?

BARAK: I think that in the last 18 months, Saudi Arabia was quite a pariah in Washington. And what happened was, the Russian invasion of Ukraine this led to gas prices and oil prices going up. This, I think, led the administration to understand that it needs to counter Russia not only in Ukraine, but in other parts of the world. It's also connected to domestic issues in America because when oil prices are high, gas prices are high. And the economy is always a big issue in an election and one other thing is to get oil prices down and to do that, you need Saudi Arabia. I don't think Biden changes mind about the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or about Saudi Arabia in general but at the end of the day, it's a really high stakes visit in Saudi Arabia.

NIALA: Barak, you and I are talking Thursday evening, Tel Aviv time - President Biden is headed to East Jerusalem today without any Israeli officials?

BARAK: Israeli officials won't be there. Although the U.S., the Biden administration did not roll back Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, but it's a sort of a signal that the Biden administration is taking a more vague position on where exactly in Jerusalem they think that Israel has, has its sovereignty. And Biden when he came into office, he basically made it clear and he made it clear again when he arrived in Israel, that he doesn't think that an Israeli, Palestinian peace agreement at the moment is something which is feasible and therefore he's not gonna put forward any peace plan. And for the Palestinians, I think that's a big disappointment but as a whole, I think the Palestinian expectations from this visit are very, very low.

NIALA: Barak Ravid is a contributing correspondent for Axios based in Tel Aviv. Thanks Barak.

BARAK: Thank you Niala.

NIALA: In a moment: this weekend’s transition to a new national suicide hotline.

[ad break]

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo. Starting tomorrow, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will transition to a new three digit number - 988. The new number is meant to expand access to mental health resources and make it easier for people in crisis to get help. But there's still a lot of questions about whether states are prepared for this launch. Adriel Bettelheim is Axios’ senior healthcare editor, and joins me now with the details. Hi, Adriel.

ADRIEL: Nice to be with you.

NIALA: How will this new number change how people access mental healthcare?

ADRIEL: Well, it's kind of like creating a 911 for the mental health crisis and is in theory, supposed to funnel calls into local crisis hotlines where there are trained counselors or people who can immediately intervene or make referrals. And, you know, at least in theory, they're supposed to know what resources are there in the community.

NIALA: You're saying in theory, do you have worries about the implementation? What are we hearing from states about this transition?

ADRIEL: Well, there was a survey of mental health agency directors earlier this year by Rand that found that more than half of those surveyed reported they hadn't been involved in the development of a strategic plan for the launch of 988 and only I think 16% reported that they had developed a budget to support the 988 operations. So the question is what happens in the states at the local level. Some states are really great about having local call centers, getting all of the referrals from a particular area, some have overflow numbers that go out of state. But there's all sorts of questions about whether the handoffs are gonna work, whether if there's a flood of calls, you're gonna get someone two states away having to intervene in a crisis like this. And, whether indeed the calls even come through or get dropped. So I think they're wary about over-promising too much, and they're sort of portraying it more as a phase in than an instant flip the switch.

NIALA: Suicides in the U.S. are thankfully trending downward overall, but not for some groups, particularly teen girls and Black and Hispanic men. So how important is this hotline for addressing suicide and mental health issues?

ADRIEL: I mean, it comes obviously at an important time. The nation's frazzled, some of that is attributed to the pandemic, some of it to the increasingly polarized political debate, federal officials think this is contributing to the spikes we're seeing in gun violence, drug overdose deaths, teen suicides. So if you have a simpler way of people airing out their frustration, their state of mind, the thinking is that you get more people who could intervene. And some states like Mississippi have mobile crisis intervention teams that they mobilize. Again, there's great variations between states like Colorado and Washington state have enacted special telecom taxes so they can hire more people. So it's, a little bit of a wait and see which again, makes this kind of a tricky launch.

NIALA: So if you were someone, you know, maybe considering suicide, you can still call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and that number is 1-800-273-TALK. Or you can text home to 741741 as this 988 number faces in Adriel Bettelheim is Axios senior healthcare editor. Thanks, Adriel.

ADRIEL: Thanks very much.

NIALA: And that’s it for us –

Axios Today is produced by Nuria Marquez Martinez and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Our sound engineers are Alex Sugiura and Ben O’Brien. Alexandra Botti is our Supervising Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is Axios’ Editor In Chief - and special thanks as always to Mike Allen.

I’m Niala Boodhoo. Stay safe and enjoy your weekend – I’ll see you Monday.

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