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Biden Hosts Jordan's King Amid Mideast Tensions

FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Jordan's King Abdullah in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2021.
FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden shakes hands with Jordan's King Abdullah in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, July 19, 2021.

Amid increasing tensions between Israel and Palestinians, U.S. President Joe Biden hosted King Abdullah II of Jordan for a private lunch Thursday, the second White House meeting between the leaders in less than a year and the third since Biden took office.

The president “affirmed his strong support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and recognized the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’s crucial role as the custodian of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem, citing the critical need to preserve the historic status quo at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount,” the White House said in a statement after the meeting.

Under a 1994 peace treaty with Israel, Jordan is recognized as the custodian of the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif, al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the most contentious religious site in Jerusalem, revered by Jews and Muslims.

The 5-week-old coalition under Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seen as the most right-wing government in that country’s history, has kindled heightened sensitivity centered around the holy sites. Last month Amman summoned Israel’s ambassador to protest Israeli police obstruction of a visit by Jordan’s envoy to al-Aqsa. Israeli police said the envoy arrived at the site without prior coordination.

The White House said Biden and Abdullah discussed “opportunities and mechanisms to reduce tensions, particularly in the West Bank,” where the bloodiest violence in years has ensued. At least 35 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops in recent weeks and seven civilians were shot dead by a Palestinian attacker in Jerusalem outside a synagogue last Friday.

While there are no specific deliverables from the meeting, just as when the king visited the White House in May, Biden’s public reiteration of Jordan’s role as custodian of the Temple Mount was seen as key to maintaining stability.

Responding to VOA’s question on whether Biden shares Jordanian concerns that the Israeli government is threatening the status quo of the holy sites and escalating violence with Palestinians, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that Netanyahu has “repeatedly emphasized that he will set the policy for his government,” referring to the Israeli leader’s efforts to allay fears that far-right members of his coalition will drive Israel’s political trajectory.

Amid the tension, on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken shuttled between Israel and the West Bank. While he reasserted Washington’s “ironclad” commitment to Israel, in a rare criticism Blinken called out Israeli settlement expansion and its demolitions of Palestinian homes as detrimental to the two-state solution.

Israeli-Palestinian tensions

Keeping Israeli-Palestinian tensions from bubbling over is high on both Abdullah’s and Biden’s agenda, said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

“Jordan is directly in the crosshairs whenever there's tensions between Israelis and Palestinians,” he told VOA. Meanwhile, Katulis added, as Washington focuses on pushing back Russian aggression in Ukraine and strategic competition with China, it has little bandwidth to deal with escalation in the Middle East.

“There really isn't a coherent U.S. strategy for the region that's proactive,” Katulis said. “It's one of just tactical crisis management, not really finding a clear pathway forward.”

Also Thursday, Abdullah delivered a speech at the national prayer breakfast and met with Vice President Kamala Harris and Blinken separately, following meetings with congressional leaders including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and heads of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Armed Services Committee and the Appropriations Committee, thanking them for U.S. financial aid to Jordan. The U.S. is Jordan's single largest provider of bilateral assistance, providing more than $1.65 billion in fiscal 2021.

These meetings signify the importance Washington attributes to Jordan, said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who advised on Arab-Israeli negotiations and is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Despite its small size and lack of regional influence, Jordan is viewed as a key U.S. Middle East ally; and despite its increasing intolerance for domestic protest and dissent, a force of moderation in a turbulent region,” he told VOA.

A spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said the leaders also addressed the global impact of Russia’s invasion. Jordan’s economy has been hit by spillovers of multiple regional conflicts including wars in Iraq and Syria, and now by rising energy and grain prices because of the war in Ukraine.