- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Ignoring Iran and barely mentioning Iraq, Jordan’s King Abdullah II told a joint session of Congress yesterday that ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was critical to peace and stability in the Middle East.

In a 30-minute address, the king focused almost entirely on the plight of the Palestinians, saying it was imperative that the United States use its influence to help forge a lasting peace deal this year.

“We cannot lose sight of a profound reality,” said the Jordanian ruler, considered a key moderate U.S. ally in the region. “The wellspring of regional division, the source of resentment and frustration far beyond, is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine.”

He added, “Some will say, ‘This is not the core issue in the Middle East.’ I come here today as your friend to tell you that this is the core issue. And this core issue is not only producing severe consequences for our region, it is producing severe consequences for our world.”

Under pressure from Jordan and other Arab allies, the Bush administration has stepped up its public efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice making two trips to the region since the beginning of the year.

But the trips produced little visible progress, and Israeli officials have expressed fears that Washington would press them to make concessions in exchange for Arab cooperation in the war in Iraq and the confrontation over Iran’s suspected nuclear-weapons program.

Abdullah was greeted with lengthy applause before his speech in the House chamber, but pro-Israel lawmakers were noticeably less enthusiastic afterward.

Rep. Steve Israel, New York Democrat, called the king’s speech “very imbalanced” for what the lawmaker said was a failure to cite Palestinian and radical Islamist terrorist attacks as the root cause for the failure of peace talks with Israel.

“I expected to hear a speech about Iraq,” Mr. Israel said. “Instead, I was troubled to hear the suggestion that the fact that Sunni and Shia [Muslims] are murdering each other is somehow the fault of the Israelis.”

The king also sidestepped any discussion of the violent divisions within the Palestinian camp and the role of Hamas, the militant ruling party in the Palestinian territories that refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Without commenting on the substance of the speech, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack called the monarch “a good friend and a close ally.”

Asked why the king was invited to speak before a joint session of Congress, Mr. McCormack said, “We’re able to honor our friends in different ways, and this is just one way we do it.”

Abdullah’s five-day U.S. visit included a dinner with President Bush, a working lunch with Miss Rice, and meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and top lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Before coming to Washington, he met with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in London.

In a more-pointed interview last week on Jordanian state television, the king warned Israel against a “fortress” mentality and said his U.S. trip was intended to lobby for support for a five-year-old Arab peace plan for the Palestinians that Israel has rejected.

Abdullah, a Sunni Muslim, has warned of an Iran-dominated “Shia crescent” overwhelming the Middle East. Amman officials also will attend this weekend’s international conference in Baghdad on the war in Iraq, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring across the border into Jordan.

The king barely mentioned the region’s other crises in his focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the need for U.S. engagement.

“We need all hands on deck,” he said.

With Mr. Cheney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, standing behind him, Abdullah did note the recent election of Rep. Keith Ellison, Minnesota Democrat and the first Muslim-American elected to Congress.

When the king closed his address with “Salaam aleikum,” the traditional Arabic greeting meaning “Peace be unto you,” Mr. Ellison could be heard giving the traditional response: “Aleikum salaam.”

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