US President Barack Obama Tuesday meets Jordan’s King Abdullah II, kicking off a week of intense Middle East diplomacy at a moment of deep pessimism over prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
Obama will also meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, make a big speech on the implications of Arab uprisings and speak to the powerful US Israel lobby on Sunday before heading off on a trip to Europe.
While the killing of Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden two weeks ago bolstered Obama’s credentials as commander-in-chief, the failure so far of his Middle East peace drive has seriously detracted from his foreign policy legacy.
Abdullah will be expected to warn in the Oval Office talks that time is running out for an effort to narrow Israeli-Palestinian divides and to stress that Obama’s continued attention to the issue is vital.
The king, friendly with Obama since the former Illinois senator’s 2008 campaign trip to Jordan, will also argue that Washington’s response to political tumult tearing through the region could be decisive.
“We’re here in Washington to not only talk about our bilateral relations and the challenges that we face in the Middle East, but also this Arab Spring,” Abdullah said Monday, referring to the pro-democracy revolutions.
“That is a challenge for all of us to hopefully get it right and the role of the United States is going to be crucial how the Middle East moves in what direction,” the king said.
Obama is due to lay out a detailed US response to the wave of political change and unrest reshaping the Middle East, which has seen US allied authoritarian leaders toppled, in a major speech on Thursday.
The president’s political opponents have accused him of inconsistency on the varied revolutions and warn he has been too slow to leap to the defense of demonstrators facing brutal crackdowns in nations like Syria.
As revolts have battered Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain in turn, Obama aides have warned that each nation is distinct and say a one-size fits all doctrinal policy would be inappropriate.
Obama’s week of diplomacy will also be carefully watched for clues on his next moves on his stalled Middle East peace drive.
Almost as soon as taking office in January 2009, Obama made clear that forging Middle East peace and a Palestinian state would be a high diplomatic priority on his watch, and one on which he would wager political capital.
But more than two years later, the situation seems more dire than when he took office. Direct talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, painstakingly brokered by Washington, collapsed last year in a row over settlements.
And the lack of direction and general malaise seemed to be summed up by the resignation of Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell last week.
The situation took another dire turn on Sunday as 14 people were killed as Israeli troops shot at thousands of Palestinian demonstrators seeking to cross its borders, and blamed Syria and Lebanon for the incursions.
The clashes erupted as Palestinians marked the anniversary of Israel’s founding in 1948.
Obama meanwhile has had a rocky relationship with Netanyahu and seen his credibility with the Palestinians recede, and now few observers of the Middle East see any chance for progress.
“It’s not going anywhere, I think what we have is the status quo,” Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations told reporters Monday, noting that neither Israel nor the Palestinians appeared ready to make moves towards peace.
“We’re in deadlock,” he said.
US officials seem privately despondent, both at Netanyahu’s unwillingness to make concessions to the Palestinians, and at a Palestinian unity deal between Fatah and Hamas which has hardened the Israeli line even more.
The Israeli leader, managing a volatile conservative coalition, on Monday branded the Palestinian leadership a “catastrophe.” Israelis view Hamas as a terrorist group and say its presence has tainted the Palestinian cause.
Netanyahu is due in Washington for White House talks with Obama on Friday, and will address both chambers of the US Congress next week.
Both leaders will be seeking a way out of a looming crisis as the Palestinians threaten a unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
Obama is in a tricky spot, since, hoping to jog Israeli-Palestinian peace talks into life, last year set September as a deadline for a framework agreement on a Palestinian state.
Now he risks being seen in the Arab world as the man who blocks the road to Palestinian statehood.