RAMALLAH // Jordan's King Abdullah made a surprise visit to the Palestinian Authority's president yesterday amid rumours that Mahmoud Abbas may soon step down.
The speculation that Mr Abbas may quit was fuelled by the nature of the king's visit to Ramallah, his first to the West Bank since 2000. Landing by helicopter at the Palestinian Authority's (PA) Muqata headquarters, the Jordanian monarch was greeted by Mr Abbas and then promptly ushered away from a crowd of journalists and into closed-door meetings. The pair declined to participate in a press conference held by the PA foreign minster Riyad Malki and his Jordanian counterpart, Nasser Judeh.
Answering only a handful of questions, Mr Judeh said the visit was an attempt "to support the resumption of direct negotiations, because the goal is to guarantee the creation of an independent Palestinian state".
The latest round of Israel-Palestinian peace talks collapsed last year because Israel refused to stop building settlements.
Mr Judeh also expressed support for a May reconciliation accord between Mr Abbas's Fatah faction and its Hamas rival in the West Bank, which stalled soon after it was announced.
Israeli leaders, however, have a different view of the reasons for the Jordanian ruler's trip, Israel's Haaretz daily reported yesterday, citing concerns about rising Hamas influence and Mr Abbas's hold on power.
The officials see King Abdullah’s visit as an attempt to bolster the moderate Palestinian leader against the Islamist group, the newspaper reported.
Mr Abbas recently has tried to kick-start reconciliation with Hamas, angering Israel and Washington.
He was expected to meet Hamas’s Damascus-based leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Cairo tomorrow to discuss forming a new Palestinian government and holding elections next year. It was unclear if Mr Abbas intended to run in those elections.
Speculation over his departure comes as Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has sought to express his country’s support for King Abdullah against sporadic domestic protests.
In a letter sent last week to Jordan’s leader, he called the country a “stabilising” force in the region.
This also was an apparent move to counter calls by ultranationalist Israelis to convert Jordan into a state for Palestinians, which Mr Lieberman described as “against Israeli interests”.
The “Jordan is Palestine option” has become increasingly popular among Israel’s assertive settler population. Some estimates say Palestinians represent as much as 70 per cent of Jordan’s population.
“King Abdullah is certainly not more powerful than Mubarak or Assad,” said Naftali Bennet, the director general of the Yesha Council, which represents settlers.
He was referring to revolts that deposed Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, in February and now threaten the rule of Syria’s president, Bashar Al Assad.
“Jordan’s self-implosion is not a threat. It’s an opportunity and we should make it happen faster,” mr Bennet said.
He added that the Palestinian statehood bid was a “failure” and, as a result, he called on Palestinians and Israelis to abandon the idea of a two-state solution.
But Palestinian leaders insist their statehood effort is alive and well.
Nabil Shaath, an aide to Mr Abbas, said the Palestinian leadership was still mulling options since the effort for full recognition in the UN Security Council failed to win enough support for a vote.
These included asking the General Assembly to elevate the Palestinian Territories to the status of non-member state and then returning to the Security Council to request another vote for full membership. He said officials may also wait to approach the Security Council again early next year when five new countries – Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Morocco, Pakistan and Togo – will hold seats in the 15-member Security Council.
“I know there will be difficulty getting nine votes and we might even get an American veto” in the Security Council, he said. “But we think we need to at least demonstrate serious efforts to get that Security Council measure on the table.”
Another Palestinian official familiar with the statehood deliberation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Mr Abbas has taken a more cautious approach for fear of incurring a backlash from both Washington and Israel. That was why he has taken time to examine all his UN options.
An important donor to the PA, the US successfully lobbied against the Palestinians in the Security Council and, it seems, caused Mr Abbas to refrain from requesting membership in a dozen international organisations.
Washington suspended payment to Unesco after Palestine’s successful admission to the UN agency last month.