Ahead of Obama's Cairo speech, Arab leaders see window of opportunity for peace
King Abdullah II of Jordan, embraced by the West and his Arab allies, is emerging as a facilitator for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
While the details have yet to emerge, and numerous challenges remain, many Arab leaders see a window of opportunity to end the conflict after more than half a century.
"The level of optimism is pretty significant. We haven't seen this for a long time," says Mohammad al-Momani, a political science professor at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan. "People believe that Obama understands that there is a need for concrete action on the Arab-Israeli conflict and that he has shown ... significant commitment to [resolving] the conflict."
One of the most prominent Arab leaders seizing this moment has been Jordan's King Abdullah II. While Egypt and Saudi Arabia – whose contacts and wealth have long made them influential – will likely preserve their traditional roles, the king is emerging as the unofficial spokesman for peace, forging ties in both the Middle East and the West.
He was the first Arab leader invited by Mr. Obama to the Oval Office. He hosted Pope Benedict XVI (who reiterated calls for a Palestinian homeland), shuttled between leaders from Europe to Japan, worked to reconcile rifts within the Arab world, and received Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
"He is really the prime mover of the cause of peace in the region," says Abdel-Elah al-Khateeb, a former Jordanian foreign minister. "He has the credibility, the stamina, the determination, and the conviction to do it. This is not an easy task in a region where radicalization is taking deep root because of the failure to achieve peace between the Israelis and Palestinians."
With only 6.3 million people – one-third of Cairo's population – and almost no resources, Jordan may seem an unlikely state to carry much diplomatic weight. Yet as the second Arab state to normalize relations with Israel and the only one to border the West Bank, it has historically played a significant role in the peace process. Nearly 60 percent of Jordan's population is Palestinian. As many Jordanians say, Palestine's problems are Jordan's problems.
"[King Abdullah] is trying to put himself out in front primarily for domestic reasons," says David Aaron, director of the RAND Corporation's Center for Middle East Public Policy in Santa Monica, Calif.