President Obama’s critical meeting with Binyamin Netanyahu next week has become the acid test for the Administration’s commitment to peace in the Middle East, King Abdullah of Jordan said.
The monarch does not conceal his feelings about the Israeli leader. He described their last encounter – 10 years ago when he had just come to the throne – as the “least pleasant” of his reign. But he, and President Mubarak of Egypt, are expected to meet the Israeli leader before his trip to Washington, where the future course of the region could be decided.
The King said that he was prepared to believe what Israelis have told him — that a right-wing Government in Israel is better able to deliver peace than the Left.
“All eyes will be looking to Washington,” he said. “If there are no clear signals and no clear directives to all of us, there will be a feeling that this is just another American Government that is going to let us all down.”
If Israel procrastinated on a two-state solution, or if there was no clear American vision on what should happen this year, the “tremendous credibility” that Mr Obama had built up in the Arab world would evaporate overnight.
And if peace negotiations were delayed, there would be another conflict between Arabs or Muslims and Israel in the next 12-18 months, with implications far beyond the Middle East.
“If the call is in May that this is not the right time or we are not interested, then the world is going to be sucked into another conflict in the Middle East,” the King said.
He broke off from his busy schedule hosting the Pope in Jordan to give his warning to The Times. He was the first Arab leader to call on President Obama in Washington two weeks ago, and is now leading the hectic Arab efforts to respond to the Administration’s determination to seek a comprehensive peace.
Mr Obama is expected to lay this out to the Muslim world in a visit to Cairo next month.
The King traveled to Damascus to urge President Assad to join the Arab efforts to seek a settlement with Israel, based on the Arab peace plan adopted in 2002.
Brokered by the Americans, this would be the most comprehensive deal attempted since the opening of the Madrid conference in 1991.
It would offer Israel immediate benefits, such as entry visas to every Arab country, the right of El Al, Israel’s national airline, to overfly Arab territory, and the eventual recognition of Israel by all 57 members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.
In return, the Israelis would have to put an immediate stop to the building and expansion of settlements and agree to withdraw from territories occupied since 1967.
The two most sensitive issues — the future status of Jerusalem and the right of return by Palestinians who fled in 1948 — would be negotiated within the framework of the peace plan.
The King sidestepped reports that he had been asked by the Americans to clarify the Arab proposals on making East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian state and the Palestinian right of return, the two most contentious issues in Israel. Mr Netanyahu has frequently said these were not negotiable.
“I was very specific in carrying a letter on behalf of the Arab League highlighting the Arab peace proposal, their desire to work with President Obama to make this successful, their commitment in the peace proposal in extending the hand of friendship to the Israelis,” he said.
Jerusalem was not an international problem but an “international solution”, he insisted. A symbol of conflict for centuries, it was now desperately needed to become a symbol of hope. And hinting at the Arab demand for international control of the old city, he said that Islam, Christianity and Judaism should make it a “pillar for the future of this century”.
He sensed a lot more understanding in these times of cultural and religious suspicions that “Jerusalem could be the binder that we need”.
The Pope’s visit, he said, was timely. His spiritual pilgrimage with a message of peace sent a signal of hope to back up the reconciliation that politicians in the region were planning. “It is all part of one major effort.”
He saw Mr Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama next week as the turning point: “A lot is on his shoulders as he goes to Washington.” The King said that Mr Obama was committed to the two-state solution, which had to be implemented now.
The Arabs were “sick and tired” of promises of a new peace process. What was needed was for the Israelis to sit down not only with the Palestinians but also with the Syrians and the Lebanese to settle all the issues.
In a direct appeal to the Israeli public, he said they could either do a deal that would lead to peace and recognition by the 57 Muslim countries — a third of the world’s population; or they could maintain “Fortress Israel” for another ten years, which would be a calamity for everyone.
This was a bigger issue than just Israel-Palestine. It had become a global problem. “This is where I think the Obama Administration gets it.” Britain also had been “very active” — more than at any time for a decade.
The King singled out David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, for praise.
Mr Netanyahu is expected in Amman on a private visit very soon. The atmosphere may be difficult, the King considers that Mr Netanyahu had contrived to make the first three months of his reign very unpleasant.
But, he added, “we have to deal what we’re stuck with. Just because there is a right-wing Government in Israel does not mean that we should chuck in the towel.” It might even be easier for such a Government to do a deal, he believes.
Emphasising again the urgency now felt by all Arab governments of making the most of Mr Obama’s commitment to a settlement, he said this was a final opportunity.
“I think we’re going to have to do a lot of shuttle diplomacy, get people to a table in the next couple of months to get a solution.” The alternative was bleak — war, death and destruction. The King added: “This is a critical moment.”