Obama's first meeting with an Arab leader

AMMAN — King Abdullah II Ibn al-Hussein's meeting with President Barack Obama to discuss the Arab-Israeli peace process marks the first time an Arab leader has had an audience with the new U.S. president.

The meeting comes at a time when King Abdullah of Jordan and other Arab leaders are seeking to influence the Obama administration as it is still formulating its policies on the Middle East, and Abdullah came to Washington to represent a united Arab position to the new U.S. administration.

Obama and Abdullah met with reporters just after their meeting at the White House, and Obama said his administration, led by special envoy George Mitchell, would "deeply engage" in the peace process. 

Obama also reiterated that he was a "strong proponent of a two-state solution" in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has been repeatedly eclipsed by one spike of violence after another in recent years.

Almost all of the questions were directed at Obama. Abdullah said very few words in the half-hour press conference, which was aired live on CNN. 

Abdullah said, "We are looking at the positives and not the negatives ... to see how we can move this process forward."

The king came to Washington intent on pushing the U.S. to advocate for a two-state solution in Israel and the Palestinian territories, but some regional analysts question whether the U.S. can be a force for change in the Middle East, given Israel’s new hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a divided Palestinian government.

“Regardless of the might or willingness of the United States, with or without the EU, eventually the ability to translate the superpowers’ powers into action when it comes to such a complex ethnic conflict will very much depend on the ability and the willingness of all parties concerned to cooperate and join forces,” said Avraham Sela, a professor of international relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

King Abdullah, who met with foreign ministers from Egypt, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, Qatar and Saudi Arabia before traveling to the U.S., is expected to reiterate the aims of the Arab Initiative, which was signed in 2002.

The pact calls for Israel to relinquish the territory it captured in 1967; in exchange the Arab nations will restore normal relations with Israel. The plan was largely overlooked by the Bush administration.

While many Middle Eastern leaders are hoping for a shift in U.S. foreign policy, with Obama focused largely on the economy it has been difficult to tell how much will change. Additionally, Obama has only just recently appointed many key Middle East advisers, including the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, former senator George Mitchell.

“Everyone in the region is waiting to see what exactly Obama’s Middle East policy is going to be,” said Issandr el Amrani, a Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group in Cairo. “We’re only just starting to see the implementation of a new U.S. Middle East policy.”

Jordan, it seems, was the strategic choice to deliver this message to the Obama administration, as well as to transmit the U.S. president’s message back to other Middle East leaders.

Long a stalwart ally of the U.S. and the only Arab nation along with Egypt to sign a treaty with Israel, Jordan also has much at stake in the peace process. Aside from sharing a border with the West Bank, nearly 60 percent of the nation’s population, including Queen Rania, are of Palestinian origin.

Still, tensions have been mounting here since Israel’s recent military offensive into Gaza, which filled Arab satellite television news channels with images of Palestinian civilians who were killed and injured in the Israeli air strikes and ground invasion.

Last week, members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood staged a protest in Amman calling for the government to cut ties with Israel. Protesters accused Israel of a concerted policy that intends to force Arabs from Jerusalem.

It is unlikely that King Abdullah will react to these calls from Jordan’s conservative elements. Severing ties with Israel would only serve to exacerbate the conflict, adding to Jordan’s problems, said Mazen A. Alaugili, a political science professor at Mu’tah University in Karak, Jordan. Aside from creating economic troubles for Jordan, the conflict has fueled many extremist groups.

“If the peace is not going to take place, the radical groups are going to expand and have increased influence," Alaugili said. “That’s going to threaten stability in all the modern Arab states in the area.”

Regardless of how King Abdullah’s message is received by Obama, negotiations with the Netanyahu government may prove difficult. The new Israeli prime minister has shown little willingness to negotiate with Palestinian leaders or make concessions on key issues.

Netanyahu did, however, show himself to be susceptible to U.S. influence during his last term as prime minister in the 1990s. In 1997, Israel’s intelligence agency, Mossad, attempted a Hamlet-like assassination on Hamas leader Khaled Meshal by trying to shoot poison into his ear. At the time, Meshal was leading Hamas’ Jordan office, so King Hussein, Abdullah’s father, intervened and demanded that Netanyahu deliver the antidote. When he didn’t, then-President Bill Clinton forced Netanyahu to provide it.

“As far as American-Israeli relations goes, the U.S. can basically tell Israel exactly what to do, because at the end of the day Israel is dependent on American support, certainly for when it comes to maintaining its occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” said Mouin Rabbani, a contributing editor to Middle East Report.

But Rabbani added that the Obama administration will not likely put forth policies that would represent a “radical break in U.S.-Middle East policy.

“The Jordanians are experienced enough not to have any unrealistic expectations that the U.S. is suddenly going to be come an active opponent of the Israeli occupation,” Rabbani said.

Read more about Jordan:

Bone dry

Can Jordan dodge the downturn bullet?

A high price for true love