Obama travels from Israel and Palestinian lands to Jordan

Friday, March 22, 2013 - 9:07am

JERUSALEM (CNN) -- After putting himself in the middle of the historic tensions between Israelis and Palestinians this week, U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday wraps up his first trip to Israel since becoming president.

He then moves on to another of America's closest allies in the region -- Jordan, a military and intelligence partner, which has been facing trying times.

Obama is devoting his last hours in Israel and the Palestinian territories to cultural endeavors.

With Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president and Secretary of State John Kerry visited the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, where Obama placed a stone on top of the tomb.

From there, the delegation went to the grave of Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1995. Obama also laid a wreath and a stone there.

The stone for Rabin's grave came from the grounds of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington.

Obama and the Israeli leaders also visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, where the president turned up the "eternal flame" of remembrance of the 6,000,000 Jewish victims of Nazi death camps in World War II.

The president praised nations of the past that intervened in the Nazi genocide and called for nations today to consider their example.

"Here alongside man's capacity for evil, we are also reminded of man's capacity for good. The rescuers, the righteous among nations, who refused to be bystanders, and in their noble acts of courage, we see how this place, this accounting of horror, is in the end a source of hope."

Before continuing on to the last stop of his trip, Obama with visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is on the West Bank, with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Obama then travels to Jordan, where he will meet with King Abdullah II, who has faced harsh criticism lately from his country's people.

Abdullah under duress

Abdullah has a reputation for being more of a benevolent king, not at all comparable to autocratic rulers like Syria's Bashar al-Assad or deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. One house of the Jordanian parliament is democratically elected.

But Jordan is plagued with a bad economy, which is trouncing the standard of living, and with allegations of corruption by public officials looking out for their own pocket books.

The country is wedged in between the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Syria, and has seen more than its share of refugees from them all. Jordan currently shelters more Syrian refugees than any other country -- over 300,000, according to the United Nations.

People are angry and have vented their frustration directly at the king -- a rarity in the past. In November crowds took to the streets calling for his downfall in the wake of gasoline price hikes.

A controversial interview fanned the flames of discontent just days ago, when comments attributed to Abdullah in the U.S. magazine The Atlantic triggered another round of outrage against him.

He was quoted as calling the opposition Muslim Brotherhood a "Masonic cult" and referring to tribal elders in his country as "old dinosaurs."

The royal palace has denied Abdullah made the comments, but it hasn't quelled a sense of insult.

Young Israelis applaud Obama

Obama tried Thursday to invigorate the stalled Middle East peace process, urging young Israelis to pressure their leaders to seek peace with Palestinians while acknowledging the Jewish state's historical right to exist and defend itself from continuing threats.

In a speech in Jerusalem that Obama had said would lay out his vision for the region, the president urged Israelis to look at the world through the eyes of Palestinians but also said enemies of Israel must change their rhetoric and tactics to reflect modern reality.

"You are not alone," Obama said in both English and Hebrew, prompting a standing ovation when he declared that "those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel's right to exist might as well reject the Earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere."

When Obama mentioned the name of Abbas in his speech Thursday, some boos erupted in the Jerusalem Convention Center among the audience of mostly young Israelis. He also was interrupted at one point by a protester's shouts, causing the president to joke that the heckling "made me feel at home" in reference to the caustic political climate in Washington.

He urged Israelis to empathize with the plight of Palestinians, using direct and harsh imagery to make his point.

He prompted applause from the young Israeli crowd when he criticized their government's controversial policy of building new settlements in disputed territories.

Symbols and gestures

Hours before the speech on the second day of his Middle East swing, two rockets fired from Palestinian-controlled Gaza landed in southern Israel.

They caused no injuries or major damage, but served as a symbolic welcome to Obama's visit to the West Bank on Thursday to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

In another symbolic moment, Obama received Israel's highest civilian honor -- the Presidential Medal of Distinction -- Thursday night from Israeli President Shimon Peres at a state dinner that emphasized the close ties between their countries.

Noting the similarity between the histories of Israelis and African-Americans as former slaves who endured hardship before gaining freedom in a new land, Obama said, "Our very existence, our presence here tonight, is a testament that all things are possible."

In what Netanyahu called a key development, the leaders announced new talks on extending U.S. military assistance to Israel for another 10 years past the current agreement, which expires in 2017.

Palestinian Territories

During his earlier visit to Ramallah in the West Bank, Obama stressed the need for direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians for a two-state solution.

"The Palestinian people deserve an end to occupation and the daily indignities that come with it," he said at a news conference with Abbas, adding that Palestinians deserve "a future of hope" and a "state of their own."

The core issues right now, Obama said, are achieving sovereignty for Palestinians and security for Israel.

Abbas, however, said the Israeli settlements are "more than a hurdle to peace," calling them illegal and saying it was Israel's duty to stop building them.

He envisioned a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders with Jerusalem as capital -- a scenario unacceptable to Israel.

On Iran

In comments to reporters Wednesday and in Thursday's speech, Obama called for more diplomacy on Iran while endorsing Israel's right to defend itself as it sees fit. He also insisted that "all options" remain open -- code for a military strike to disable the Iranian program.

That prompted a warning Thursday from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, that Tehran would destroy Tel Aviv if Israel were to attack its nuclear facilities.

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