Behind the Headlines: Abdullah Comes to U.S. Talking of Peace, Asking for Debt Relief

Jordan’s King Abdullah stepped out from his father’s shadow on his first visit here since assuming the throne of the Hashemite Kingdom in early February.

Sounding much like King Hussein, and wearing a beard that reminded many of his late father, Abdullah staked out familiar territory by pledging support for the peace process and promising to do all he can to help the Palestinians and Israelis reach a peace agreement.

But Abdullah, who has repaired relations with many Arab states strained by Jordan’s peace treaty with Israel, carried messages from Syria.

Israel and Syria are “at the threshold of a breakthrough,” Abdullah told a delegation of some 18 Jewish officials at a meeting Monday at the Blair House in Washington.

Abdullah told the officials that Syrian President Hafez Assad referred in a recent meeting to “when” Syria has peace with Israel, not “if,” according to participants.

Abdullah’s visit to Washington came in the middle of a tour of European states where the king is seeking billions of dollars in debt forgiveness. His meeting with President Clinton came the morning after Israeli Prime Minister-elect Ehud Barak defeated Benjamin Netanyahu.

Abdullah said he has high hopes for the peace process in the wake of Barak’s victory.

“We see eye to eye on many issues and we’re very optimistic of taking the peace process forward,” Abdullah told reporters in the Oval Office before meeting Tuesday with Clinton.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Abdullah cautioned against the “great expectations” that came with Barak’s victory.

“We must be vigilant in supporting our friends, because if you have this increase of expectations and nothing happens, four or five months down the line, frustration could have an even worse backlash,” he said.

Borrowing some of the language of his father, Abdullah said, “I hope that everybody will really rally behind our friends in Israel and the Palestinians, and assist them in achieving their noble aims and finally getting peace and stability and the type of world that we want to bring our children up in.”

The king paid tribute to his father, who as an avid motorcycle rider formed an unusually close relationship with the Washington Metropolitan Police, which escorts visiting dignitaries.

After meeting with Clinton, Abdullah borrowed a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and rode with the police from his hotel in downtown Washington to Maryland in a tribute to the late king.

During his visit, Abdullah also met with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, congressional leaders and American businessmen. But it was Israel’s election and the peace process that was the dominant topic during his stay.

Abdullah, who met with Barak last month, spoke warmly of the prime minister- elect.

“I think that there’s a trust and confidence between the both of us. And I am very excited that I think he is the type of man to take Israel into a new phase of peace and stability in our region.”

Referring to Barak’s background as Israel’s most decorated soldier, Abdullah said, “Soldiers tend to be able to break barriers between each other very, very quickly.”

While the Israeli election and peace process dominated Abdullah’s public appearances, Jordan’s struggling economy was the focus of his visit.

Clinton expressed support for Abdullah’s request that Japan and several European countries forgive billions of dollars in Jordanian debt. The U.S. Congress is poised to pass a measure that includes an additional $100 million in U.S. aid to Jordan. Three years ago the United States forgave millions in Jordanian debt and increased annual U.S. foreign aid to Jordan to $250 million.

“We are also very much committed to Jordan’s economic renewal,” Clinton said before meeting with Abdullah.

Clinton promised to help Abdullah convince other countries to forgive some of Jordan’s outstanding debts.

“Other nations could help more,” Clinton said. “I would like to see more action on that.”

Even with increased aid and debt forgiveness, the growth of Jordan’s economy comes down to the success of the peace process, Abdullah said.

“The lack of movement on the economic front between” Israel and Jordan “was a direct result of a stagnation in the peace process.”

“If we could move things ahead, I think that the whole area will bloom,” he said.

NEXT STORY