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Takeaways from Obama's Mideast trip

From Jerusalem to Petra, Barack Obama tried to set some diplomatic coups in motion, but will they be short-lived?

Obama in petra 2013 03 24Enlarge
US President Barack Obama tours the ancient city of Petra, in Jordan, on March 23, 2013. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

WEST BANK — Though couched in the language of modest expectations, US President Barack Obama's four-day barnstormer of the Eastern Mediterranean concealed important ambitions — many of which it appears were achieved.

Obama visited sites spanning almost all of known human history, ending his tour at a spot of mystery, ancient culture and great beauty: the hidden Nabataean city of Petra, which is carved out of red rock.

The president described the site as "amazing" — which is similar to what he had said at the start of the trip in Israel Wednesday, when presented with the US-funded Israeli high-tech anti-missile system known as Iron Dome.

Between those two bookends, Obama got a lot of business done.

He committed an additional $200 million to Jordan for help sheltering the almost half million Syrian refugees who have flooded over its border since the start of the Syrian civil war, two years ago.

At a news conference with the president, on Friday in Jordan’s capital of Amman, Jordanian King Abdullah II rejected on humanitarian grounds a journalist’s suggestion that he might close his country’s borders.

But the king underscored the burden his nation faces in stark terms. The refugees, he stressed, make up "10 percent of our population." The largest refugee camp, Zaatari, "today is the fifth largest city in Jordan." At this rate, their numbers could reach 1 million by the end of this year, the king said.

"For the Americans in the audience, that’s the equivalent of 30 million refugees crossing into the United States — the possibility of that going up to 60 million by the end of the year — relative, obviously, to our populations," he said.

The US-educated king, a staunch supporter of the United States, is seen to be a reformer and bears an impeccable Muslim pedigree — he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. In the tumult after the Arab Spring, Washington considers Abdullah as a nearly irreplaceable ally.

Obama put it in clear terms why he was visiting the small, arid kingdom: "The reason I'm here is simple. Jordan is an invaluable ally. It is a great friend."

Saying that "the United States will certainly do our part," the US president also issued a none-too-subtle admonition to Europe. "The international community needs to step up to make sure that they are helping to shoulder" the burdens Jordan faces, Obama said.

Earlier on Friday, a fierce sandstorm swept through the region, preventing helicopters from flying and delaying Obama's departure from Israel.

But then, a bit of Obama's deft, last-minute diplomacy struck what seemed to be something of a watershed moment. From inside a trailer on the tarmac, Obama brokered a phone call between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Netanyahu apologized and agreed to pay compensation for the 2010 killings of Turkish activists aboard an aid flotilla attempting to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza.

Israel and Turkey had been at a diplomatic standstill since the incident, when Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American aboard the ship.

"The reconciliation between Israel and Turkey is a very important development that will help advance the cause of peace and stability in the region," said Secretary of State John Kerry, who accompanied Obama on the trip and remained in the region after the president’s departure on Saturday.

But Obama had not yet landed back in Washington before the region’s complexities and challenges ahead made themselves plain.

Erdogan appeared to step back from his agreement with Netanyahu, telling the Turkish newspaper Zaman that Turkey would re-establish normal relations with Israel only if certain conditions were met.

"An apology will be made, compensation will be paid and the blockade on Palestine will be lifted. There will be no normalization without these," he said.

These complications came after Obama made a deep impression in a speech Thursday, in which he urged an audience of young Israelis that the Palestinians' "right to justice must also be recognized."

"Put yourself in their shoes," Obama said, "look at the world through their eyes."

Secretary of State Kerry continued talks in the region to suss out possibilities for reopening Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.

Helping smooth his path, the State Department announced on Friday that it was unblocking a much-needed $500 million in Palestinian aid that Congress had frozen since the Palestinian Authority's successful bid, last September, to gain "non-member observer state" status at the United Nations. Washington considered the UN maneuver an unacceptable "unilateral" move.

The London-based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported that on Thursday, in Ramallah, Obama had taken a step to calm Israeli nerves by asking Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to refrain from suing Israel over its settlement expansion at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The newspaper cited a Palestinian official saying Abbas assured Obama he would wait "two months before taking any measures" against Israeli settlement construction.

If true, the assurances were seen as largely symbolic as the Palestinian Authority has not established legal standing with the ICC.

Then on Monday, another breakthrough emerged. The Israeli prime minister's office said it will reinstate tax money transfers to the Palestinian Authority (PA) that Israel had frozen since December 2012, following the Palestinians' push for the UN upgrade. Those funds could total more than $100 million in tax and customs duties Israel collects for the PA under terms agreed in the Oslo Accords, The Times of Israel reported.

Yet the celebrating over the president's achievements in the region could be short-lived. The Syrian civil war that loomed large over Obama's visit showed no sign of abating.

On Sunday, the Syrian crisis once again appeared to teeter before catastrophe when Moaz al-Khatib, the respected rebel leader, suddenly resigned.

"Now I am fulfilling my promise and announcing my resignation from the National Coalition in order to be able to work with freedom that cannot be available within the official institutions," he said.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/130324/takeaways-obama-middle-east-israel-petra-trip