Obama welcomes his first Arab leader to White House

After meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah II, he emphasized his commitment to Palestinian statehood – a top concern among Arabs.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    King Abdullah II of Jordan (r.), whose agenda was shaped in part by a meeting with Arab allies prior to his US trip, walks with President Barack Obama outside the Oval Office at the White House on Tuesday.
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At a critical juncture in the Arab-Israeli peace process, President Obama on Tuesday underscored his commitment to a two-state solution in his first private meeting with an Arab leader since taking office.

King Abdullah II of Jordan, who arrived at the White House on Tuesday morning, in many ways represented the agenda of his allies in the Middle East. While many Arabs are hopeful that Mr. Obama's administration will turn a new page in the region, they have been waiting for the new president to clarify to what extent he will depart from his predecessor's policies. Top on their list of concerns is Palestinian statehood.

"I am a strong supporter of a two-state solution," Obama affirmed in remarks after the meeting, adding that he believed many Israelis support it as well. The problem, he said, was cynicism. "What we want to do is to step back from the abyss and say, 'As hard as it is, as difficult as it is, the prospect of peace still exists.' "

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That message contrasts with many who have been dismayed and discouraged with the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israel's new prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has said he is open to peace with the Palestinians, but has shown little, if any, willingness to negotiate with Palestinians or make concessions. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank remain divided as Hamas and Fatah struggle to create a unity government.

Throughout the Arab world, many analysts say that the US has the power to help bring an end to the conflict if it adopts the right policies. Economic and security benefits are especially important, says Mazen Alaugili, a political science professor at Muta University in Karak, Jordan.

"By America exercising some influence and helping the Israelis from a security point of a view and getting guarantees from the international community, it can bring this issue to an end," says Professor Alaugili. "The Americans have a lot of support from leaders in Israel and they have a lot of support [from] leaders in the Arab world."

How big a US role?

Still, many remain skeptical about just how a big a difference US support can make when it comes to mitigating the conflict. Citing the aggressive new Israeli government and the divide between Hamas and Fatah, Avraham Sela, a professor of international relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says unless there is an internal movement toward cooperation, it will be difficult for any outside power like the US to help forge a peace agreement.

"The situation is not that promising," says Professor Sela. "It does not lead me to think just because the United States is so dedicated and we now have a president who is ready to go ahead and stick his neck into this horrible conflict that something is going to change necessarily."

Obama, for his part, emphasized that while the US could create the "conditions and atmosphere" for peace, it is Israelis and Palestinians who need to seize the opportunity.

"Ultimately, they've got to make the decision that it's not in the interest of the Palestinian people or the Israelis to perpetuate the kind of conflict we've seen for decades," he said.

Abdullah met with Arab allies beforehand

While neither Obama nor King Abdullah elaborated on their private conversation, the king was expected to discuss the Arab Peace Initiative. Signed in 2002, it stipulates that Arab nations will begin normal relations with Israel if Israel returns the territory it captured in 1967. The initiative failed to gain traction during the Bush administration.

Before traveling to the US, King Abdullah had met with foreign ministers from the Palestinian Authority, Lebanon, Egypt, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to ensure that he would provide the US leader with a united Arab voice.

In many respects Jordan represented "a good part of the Arab world in terms of bringing over their agenda and listening," says Mouin Rabbani, a contributing editor to the Middle East Report. Jordanians, for their part, would be "keen to hear what exactly Obama's Middle East policies are, particularly towards [the Palestinian territories], Iraq, and, maybe to be a lesser degree, Syria and Lebanon. These are all issues that directly affect them and they will have to calibrate their own policies accordingly."

Signs of a US shift on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Obama only recently made many key appointments for his Middle East policy delegates, so it remains to be seen just how far the US will change direction.

So far, though, the Obama administration has taken a significant number of steps away from the policies of his predecessor – in particular by extending an olive branch to Iran and Syria. While these changes are not indicative of any shifts to come in Obama's stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it may be a sign of change to come.

"The Obama administration is playing its cards very close to its chest," says Issandr el-Amrani, a Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group in Cairo, noting that Obama has only been in office for about three months. "It takes a while to set up all the new positions, all the new people that are coming in, to do a review of existing policies, and decide whether any changes need to be made."

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