AMMAN // Barack Obama, the Democrats' presumptive nominee for the US presidency, arrives in Jordan today as part of an overseas trip that aims at burnishing his foreign policy credentials. Jordan's King Abdullah is expected to brief the Illinois senator on what the region expects from the next US administration, with the Arab-Israeli peace talks high on the agenda, according to a government spokesman.
Mr Obama has made the Israeli-Palestinian conflict one of his foreign policy priorities, and he is expected to visit Israel on his six-day tour that also saw him stop in Iraq yesterday and Afghanistan on Sunday. However, he stirred up a storm of criticism last month with a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in which he endorsed a two-state solution, but said Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel.
Although he later backtracked, saying that the status of Jerusalem was still to be negotiated, Jordanian analysts cast doubt on whether Mr Obama would stray too far from America's close relationship with Israel. "While Obama is trying to find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he is aware that he cannot side with Arab countries at the expense of Israel," Mohammed Momani, a professor of political Science at Yarmouk University, said. "On the contrary, I think he will continue to support Israel while manoeuvring between the Arab demands of a two-state solution and try to push this forwards.
"Arab leaders and Jordan expect an American president to be close to Israel, but their goal is actually to have him throw his full weight behind the peace process and to pressure all parties to push for the two-state solution." Jordan, a key US ally in the region and a major player in the peace process, is among the largest recipients of US assistance. Politicians hope Mr Obama will continue to support such aid programmes in recognition of the country's role in promoting peace across the war-torn region and for its efforts in fighting terror, including intelligence leading to the killing of Musab al Zarqawi, the head of al Qa'eda in Iraq. Jordan, which is host to about two million Palestinian refugees, was the second Arab country to normalise relations with Israel after Egypt and continues to press other Arab nations to do the same - in return for withdrawal from Arab lands based on an Arab initiative.
Last month, the United States allocated US$450 million (Dh1.6bn) in additional economic and security related assistance to Jordan for 2008 and 2009. Politicians also want Mr Obama to resolve Washington's standoff with Iran through diplomatic means, to agree with the Iraqi government on a timetable for a withdrawal of US troops and to ensure that a security pact with Iraq is balanced to rein in further instability.
"As the current American administration has inflamed the region ... we would like to see Obama withdraw [US troops] immediately from Iraq and leave the country for Iraqis so that they could manage their own affairs," Mamdouh Abbadi, the first deputy speaker in Jordan's lower house of parliament, said. "We also want all the political strata in Iraq to agree on the security pact with Iraq because it determines the future of the country," he said.
Mr Obama, who arrived in Iraq yesterday, has said he would bring US combat troops home within 16 months of taking office, although he has since said he would first look at the situation on the ground. Mr Obama arrived in Iraq from Afghanistan where he said the situation was "precarious and urgent". He has vowed to send more troops to Afghanistan and to shift the emphasis from what he calls the Bush administration's "single-minded" focus on Iraq.
"Once elected as the president of the United States, Obama's first step would be to get off the 'wrong battlefield' in Iraq, and take the fight back to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Yasar A Qatarneh, the director of the regional centre on conflict prevention at the Jordan Institute of Diplomacy, said. "I think that by framing his determination to fight terrorism as a contrast with his dovish views on Iraq, Obama is moving the debate in a direction that accuses the Republicans of radically misconceiving the problems of both Iraq and terrorism," he said.
Mr Obama is also expected to stop in Germany, France and Britain as part of a broader attempt to counter Republican criticism that he does not have the foreign policy experience to be commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Some Jordanians were sceptical that a new administration in the White House would make much difference. "We hope that Obama will make a difference, but those who came before him did not make any noticeable changes. In fact they made things worse when it came to the peace process or the situation in Iraq," said Wasim Khafash, a 23-year-old computer programmer.