Last year Jordan’s King Abdullah II hosted President Obama for a visit to Petra, the World Heritage ancient trade-route terminus carved into the cliffs of a red-rocked canyon in southern Jordan.
This weekend, Mr. Obama will host the king in the American desert – though, instead of a stunning example of antiquity, the venue will be Sunnylands, the former Annenberg estate in Rancho Mirage, Calif.
The two leaders, whom officials on both sides say have established a solid working relationship, will have more to discuss than gorgeous desert sites. Over dinner Friday night, Obama and King Abdullah will take up the Syria crisis and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks – two challenges that are fraught with risk for the king and his kingdom.
Last year, Obama held a two-day summit at Sunnylands with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Now, with the Abdullah dinner, some Californians are referring to the estate as Camp David West.
Jordan is home to 600,000 refugees – and counting – from next-door neighbor Syria, which is about to enter Year 3 of a devastating civil war. To give an idea of the burdens that places on a country already in economic difficulty, regional experts note that it’s akin to the entire population of Canada suddenly being forced to flee with nothing across the border into the United States.
Yet as worrisome as the Syrian refugee challenge may be, many Jordanians seem to be even more vexed by the prospects of a US-brokered, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That’s because Jordan is also home to 2 million Palestinians – many of them listed as “refugees,” who were forced to leave their homes when Israel became a state in 1948.
The issue is so front-and-center in Jordanian politics that last week the lower house of parliament approved a statement rejecting Israel’s demand that it be recognized as a “Jewish state” as part of any peace deal. Any permanent resolution of the conflict must include a “right of return” for Palestinians to return to lost homes, the Jordanian statement says – not to mention compensation for countries that have hosted refugees since 1948.
At Sunnylands, Obama may want to sound sympathetic to the leader of a country that for decades has borne the brunt of regional conflicts. But the reality is that almost no one foresees the “right of return” surviving as part of any deal, while Israel as a “Jewish state” almost certainly will.
Obama last month in his State of the Union address vowed that any peace deal would result in “lasting peace and security for the State of Israel – a Jewish state.” A year ago, in a speech in Jerusalem, Obama declared that “Palestinians must recognize that Israel will be a Jewish state.”
The problem Arabs and specifically Palestinians see with this formulation is that it would mean subordinate status for the 1.7 million Muslim and other religious minorities with Israeli citizenship. But for Abdullah, a declaration of Israel as a Jewish state would signal the end of Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” – something that would be explosive in a country already destabilized by regional pressures.
The Obama-Abdullah tête-à-tête is also sure to include Israel's demand that its security forces remain inside any future Palestinian state along the Jordan River valley.
And just in case the Palestinian issue weren’t enough to sour the Sunnylands dinner, there’s also Syria.
Obama will no doubt remind his guest that the US is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian refugees.
But that may provide only minimal comfort for Abdullah, who has tried to maintain a neutral stance in a conflict that has no diplomatic solution in sight, as Obama acknowledged earlier this week at a White House press conference.