Obama, King Abdullah To Discuss Middle East Peace

King Abdullah of Jordan will be the first Arab leader to meet President Obama in the Oval Office, when they hold talks today at the White House. The Jordanian monarch comes with a message — that the U.S. needs to work quickly to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks. But the prospects look pretty bleak.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. King Abdullah of Jordan will be the first Arab leader to meet President Obama in the Oval Office. They're holding talks this morning. The Jordanian monarch comes with a message, that the U.S. needs to work quickly to try to revive Israeli-Palestinian talks. But the prospects are looking pretty bleak, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: Middle East experts like to say that there's no perfect time for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Now the prospects seem dimmer than ever. Palestinians are divided, with Gaza and the West Bank controlled by rival factions. The new right-wing Israeli government talks about developing two economies - Israeli and Palestinian - rather than negotiating two states.

Former national security advisor Brent Scowcroft and other foreign policy heavyweights sent a letter to President Obama recently saying a two-state solution is the only option, though time is running out.

Mr. BRENT SCOWCROFT (Former National Security Advisor): It's always going to be difficult. And the one thing that the letter suggests is that the United States step out of the traditional position it's had toward these talks and present its own position as a just and fair settlement of the dispute.

KELEMEN: Jordan's King Abdullah is expected to offer similar advice when he's in the Oval Office today. He's promoted the Arab Peace Initiative that offers Israel normal relations with Arab states in exchange for a viable Palestinian state. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs says Middle East peace will dominate today's meeting.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): The president has promised to be engaged repeatedly in ensuring a lasting peace there. And that will almost certainly be the dominant topic.

KELEMEN: Jordanian officials have sounded pleased with what the Obama administration has done so far, naming a special envoy, George Mitchell. But Arab leaders are looking for follow-up, according to Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. JON ALTERMAN (Center for Strategic and International Studies): They think this is an administration we can talk to. This is an administration that will listen to us. But it's an administration which will still be carrying out U.S. policy, which has many considerations which have nothing to do with winning support in the Arab world.

KELEMEN: Alterman says it's not clear yet how the Obama administration will relate to the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu. The problem for the U.S., he says, is that Netanyahu might negotiate with the Palestinians but won't want to make any real concessions.

Mr. ALTERMAN: You have the appearance of negotiations, but you're not really making progress. To me that's the challenge of a Netanyahu government. Not that it won't negotiate, but that it will negotiate over small tactical issues but not move in the strategic direction that the Obama administration is seeking to move.

KELEMEN: Dealing with Palestinian politics is another tricky issue. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeated yesterday that the U.S. won't deal with Hamas unless it renounces violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. But the administration has said little about what it would do if Hamas joins in a unity government with President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement.

Scowcroft, who was national security advisor under the first President Bush, says it's time to be flexible.

Mr. SCOWCROFT: My sense is that if progress is made, Hamas will not want to be left behind and that that would put pressure on them to modify their positions in a way that they can be participants. I guess all I'm saying is that I think we ought to have a more flexible approach.

KELEMEN: Scowcroft argues that the region is too fragile to do otherwise.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And tune in tomorrow to hear what Jordan's King Abdullah has to say about his meeting with President Obama.

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