Jordanian King Postpones Bush Meeting

Published April 20, 2004

| Associated Press

In a surprise move, King Abdullah II (search) postponed a White House meeting with President Bush this week, citing questions Monday about the U.S. commitment to the Middle East peace process.

The snub from one of Washington's closest allies comes amid Arab anger at Bush for endorsing an Israeli proposal to withdraw unilaterally from the Gaza Strip (search) and parts of the West Bank but keep Jewish settlements on other West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians.

Bush's statement after a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) last week constituted a historic shift in U.S. policy, and Palestinian leaders accused the administration of undercutting the possibility of a negotiated settlement.

The White House played down any hint of friction with Jordan, saying the Wednesday meeting with Abdullah was rescheduled to the first week of May "because of developments in the region."

"The king decided this week it was better for him to be in Jordan and we understand that," said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.

But Abdullah has been in the United States since last week and it was not clear whether he had left. A palace statement said Abdullah instructed his foreign minister to remain in Washington to continue meetings and discussions with officials in the Bush administration and to prepare for the king's return to the United States in May.

The palace statement said the Abdullah-Bush meeting would not be held "until discussions and deliberations are concluded with officials in the American administration to clarify the American position on the peace process and the final situation in the Palestinian territories, especially in light of the latest statements by officials in the American administration."

Jordan is considered a key moderate ally of the United States and is one of only two of Israel's Arab neighbors to have a peace treaty with the Jewish state. But some Jordanian citizens question their government's relationship with the United States, which they accuse of siding with Israel against the Palestinians.

Abdullah is under pressure at home to demonstrate his U.S. ties can further Arab positions on the Israeli-Palestinian question as well as on the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Jordan is especially concerned that a final peace settlement would be at its expense if refugees were dumped into the kingdom, exhausting its meager resources and disturbing its demographic balance. Roughly half of Jordan's 5.1 million population is of Palestinian families who fled or were forced out of their homes in 1948 and 1967 Mideast wars.

The rift between the Bush administration and its moderate Arab allies over Bush's statement on Israeli settlements is one of the worst to emerge in years — and has exacerbated the already tense relations between the United States and Arab countries over the war in Iraq.

Arab leaders have accused the administration of essentially taking away from the Palestinians their primary negotiating levers in any final peace deal — the disputes over whether Israel must remove all settlements from the West Bank, and whether Israel must allow back some Palestinian refugees.

Bush embraced Israeli rejection of any "right of return" for Palestinian refugees after his meeting with Sharon. Tensions also were inflamed in the Arab world by an Israeli helicopter strike that killed the Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi (search).

On Saturday, the Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, also canceled a trip to Washington for meetings in the wake of the Bush announcement on settlements. Secretary of State Colin Powell had been expecting to meet with Shaath on Wednesday.

Last week, Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher said his government wants assurances that Washington is still committed to an Arab-Israeli settlement based on exchanging land-for-peace and creating a Palestinian state by next year in line with the U.S.-backed road map peace plan.

The palace statement said the king sent a letter to Bush on April 8 in which he stressed the Jordanian position regarding ways to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through implementing the "road map."

In his letter, Abdullah said an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza must be part of the peace plan and not an alternative to it.

Despite the dramatic step of postponing a meeting with the president, the palace statement said "Jordan sees that the contents of his majesty's letter to Bush comprises significant elements for the continuation of discussions between the American and Jordanian sides."

Relations between the two countries were also close under Abdullah's late father, King Hussein. The United States is Jordan's largest Western aid donor, with contributions estimated at $456 million this year. The United States gave Jordan $1.1 billion last year to offset the kingdom's losses because of the war on Iraq.

Abdullah has sounded increasingly critical of U.S. tactics in Iraq, his eastern neighbor. Last month, he said the United States and Britain should stop focusing on justifying the war and show more concern for its security and people. He recently dispatched humanitarian supplies to Fallujah, saying the city was subject to "blockade, killing and destruction."

U.S. forces began a siege against Fallujah, near Baghdad, after insurgents killed and mutilated four Americans there on March 31. Since U.S. Marines encircled the city, Arab media has shifted its focus to the sufferings of Iraqis, with commentators saying the whole city is being forced to pay for the crimes of a few.

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