WASHINGTON — The White House played down any hint of friction Tuesday with Jordan, saying it respected King Abdullah II’s decision to postpone his visit with President Bush this week because of his questions about the U.S. commitment to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan, traveling with Bush to Buffalo, N.Y., told reporters aboard Air Force One that Bush did not feel slighted or offended by the king’s move. He said the changed plans were a result of “domestic issues” in Jordan.
But Asma Khader, a spokeswoman for the Jordanian government, told The Associated Press that while Jordan wanted a White House meeting, “there had been urgent developments since last week, when President Bush made remarks on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and that necessitated more consultations with the American administration, to have it clarify its positions on Mideast issues.”
After meeting last week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Bush embraced Israel’s rejection of any “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. Tensions have also been inflamed by the Israeli helicopter strike that killed Abdel Aziz Rantisi, the leader of the militant Islamist organization Hamas.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Marwan Muasher told reporters last week that Jordan wanted reassurances that Washington was still committed to an Arab-Israeli settlement based on an exchange of land for peace and the creation of a Palestinian state by next year in line with the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan.
Powell: Bush took the initiative
Abdullah was to have met with Bush on Wednesday, but instead he returned home Tuesday after meeting in California with businesspeople and information technology experts and delivering lectures about issues in the Middle East.
Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to smooth over the friction, telling reporters Tuesday that Bush had made it clear that favored the creation of a “viable” Palestinian state. He said that he spoke twice Monday to Abdullah and that a date was being worked out for the king to reschedule his visit for early May.
As people saw what Bush intended to do “with a Middle East trade initiative and how we work with Palestinian people on reform initiative,” Powell said after meeting with Muasher, they would realize that “the United States is committed to helping reach peace.”
Powell said the Middle East peace process had stalled despite several attempts to restart it over the years. Now, “with the initiative taken last week by the president we are now looking at the possibility of settlements’ being evacuated,” he said.
Deep anger in Arab world
The snub from King Abdullah was only the most recent expression of Arab anger at Bush for endorsing Israel’s proposal to withdraw unilaterally from all of the Gaza Strip but from only parts of the West Bank. That would leave Jewish settlements on some West Bank land claimed by the Palestinians.
The rift between the Bush administration and its moderate Arab allies over Bush’s statement is one of the worst to emerge in years, and it has exacerbated 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.
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. About half of Jordan’s 5.1 million population is composed of Palestinian families who fled or were forced out of their homes in 1948 and 1967 Middle East wars.
But Bush’s statement was also a particularly hard hit for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who met Bush on April 12 and was still in the United States two days later when Bush gave his concessions to Sharon.
Mubarak told The Houston Chronicle last week that he was shocked by Bush’s promises to Sharon. He told the French newspaper Le Monde this week that the Americans had never before been so detested in the Arab world.
Arabs “see Sharon acting as he pleases, without the Americans telling him anything whatsoever,” Mubarak added.
An Arab ambassador, asking not to be identified, told Reuters: “They are very much upset. Bush is striking at the hearts of their people, and this makes King Abdullah and Mubarak really angry,”
Said another Arab diplomat: “They are embarrassed and humiliated in front of their own people. Bush is playing with fire.”
Diplomats said that the impact would be less severe in Saudi Arabia, Washington’s other major friend in the Arab world, but that Bush’s position would not help the Saudi government stamp out violent opposition or quell increasingly vocal dissidents.
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.