Obama to shore up U.S. ally Jordan on last stop in Mideast

JERUSALEM Thu Mar 21, 2013 10:52pm GMT

1 of 4. Palestinian protesters hold placards and flags during a demonstration against U.S. President Barack Obama in the West Bank city of Ramallah March 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Mussa Qawasma

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - President Barack Obama flies to Jordan on Friday for talks with King Abdullah, a key U.S. Middle East ally, that are expected to focus on the civil war in neighbouring Syria and the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace diplomacy.

Obama will head to Amman after the final day of his first official visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, which will be heavy on symbolism as he tours sites of historic and religious importance to both peoples.

The president's visit to the desert kingdom is aimed at reassuring Abdullah of Washington's support at a time when it is flooded with refugees from the violence in Syria, and battling economic difficulties and tensions from the "Arab Spring" upheaval in the region, aides say.

Obama and Abdullah will consult extensively on the spillover of the Syrian conflict to Jordan, where an influx of more than 350,000 refugees has further strained the resources of a country that has almost no oil. Washington has provided some aid to alleviate the humanitarian situation.

Obama backs the Syrian opposition's effort to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but has limited its support to non-lethal aid to anti-government rebels despite a growing calls from European and Arab allies to take a stronger tack.

The king has taken a mostly cautious line on Syria, calling for Assad to go, but advocating a "political solution" and not arming the Syrian leader's foes. Jordanian authorities worry that any emergence of Islamist rule in a post-Assad Syria could embolden Islamists who are the main opposition group in Jordan.

Also on the agenda will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Jordan is one of only two Arab states - Egypt is the other - to have signed peace treaties with Israel, and is seen as a potential player in any future U.S.-led peace push. It also has a majority Palestinian population.

Obama appealed directly on Thursday to the Israeli people to put themselves in the shoes of stateless Palestinians and recognise that Jewish settlement activity in occupied territory hurts prospects for peace.

SHOWCASE SPEECH TO ISRAELIS

In a showcase speech in Jerusalem to Israeli university students, Obama coupled his plea with an acknowledgement of the Jewish state's security concerns in a region destabilised by the West's nuclear standoff with Iran and civil strife in Syria.

Obama said only peace could bring true security, but he did not offer any new ideas on how to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, stalled since 2010.

"Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestine," he said.

It was a clear warning that Israel's continued hold over the West Bank, territory captured along with the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, would ultimately lead to an Arab majority in land controlled by the Jewish state.

The state of Jordan's troubled economy, which receives nearly $360 million (237.26 million pounds) in U.S. economic assistance, will also be on the agenda, as will renewing the two countries' counterterrorism partnership.

And Obama will encourage Abdullah to press ahead with a programme of economic and political reform. Jordan has been the scene of mostly peaceful street protests, rather than the uprisings that have shaken some of its neighbours, and the king has responded with cautious steps toward democracy.

"We have our stalwart ally Jordan moving in the direction of reform," a senior Obama administration official said.

Before leaving Israel, Obama will visit the tombs of Theodor Hertzl, the founder of the Zionist movement, and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. He will also tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.

It is all part of paying tribute to Israeli and Jewish history in his outreach to the Israeli people, who gave him a rousing welcome despite lingering wariness about him.

He will then travel to West Bank town of Bethlehem to visit the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, in what is seen as a message of solidarity to dwindling Christian communities in a turbulent region.

Obama will visit the ruins of the ancient city of Petra in southern Jordan on Saturday before heading home to Washington.

(Additional reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Will Waterman)