JERUSALEM: A day after challenging Israelis to embrace peace with Palestinians, US President Barack Obama Friday will face scrutiny over his strategy on Syria during an overnight stay in Jordan.
Obama will fly to Amman for talks and a private dinner with King Abdullah II, after wrapping up the first visit to the Jewish state of his presidency by paying homage to Israeli heroes Theodor Herzl and Yitzhak Rabin.
While the thrust of his visit to Israel was reassurance that the United States would mount an “eternal” defense of the Jewish state amid the Iranian nuclear threat, Obama will turn to the agony of Syria’s civil war in Jordan.
Jordan is sheltering nearly 436,000 Syrian refugees, a figure expected to rise to 700,000 by the end of this year, as people fleeing vicious sectarian fighting between Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebel groups spill over its borders.
Obama has resisted pouring US arms or ammunition into the conflict, which the UN estimates has taken at least 70,000 lives, but has offered logistical support to rebels and hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid.
Obama will also support political reform efforts inside Jordan, which has been an oasis of relative calm in a region swept by turmoil following the Arab Spring uprisings.
A senior US official said Obama wanted to coordinate with the king on security challenges and on helping Jordan alleviate the refugee crisis.
“We’re providing a lot of assistance to support Jordan and international organizations that are supporting the refugee population inside of Jordan,” the official said.
“We’re also working very closely with the Jordanian government as part of the coalition of countries that is supporting the Syrian opposition to pressure the regime, to build up the opposition, and try to bring about a new Syria.”
Obama warned during his trip that Washington was investigating claims that chemical weapons have been used during the Syria conflict and warned it would be a “gamechanger” that could spark international intervention if they were fired off by the Assad regime.
The US leader will wrap up his three-day visit to Israel on Friday by paying homage to Herzl, considered the father of modern Zionism. He will also visit the grave of assassinated Israeli prime minister Rabin.
After a final short hop to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on the West Bank, which Christians revere as the birthplace of Christ, Obama will fly out of Tel Aviv aboard Air Force One.
In a powerful direct appeal to Israelis on Thursday, Obama insisted that a two-state peace with the Palestinians could still be forged and is their only hope of true security.
“You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream,” Obama said in a soaring speech, warning that a two-state solution was the only way to ensure Israel remained a Jewish state amid changing demographics.
Obama urged his young Israeli audience to “look at the world through (Palestinian) eyes.”
During a subsequent state dinner at his Jerusalem residence, President Shimon Peres told his guest that he was “moved by the way in which you spoke to the hearts of the young Israelis.”
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was also pleased with the address, a senior Palestinian official said.
“President Abbas welcomed President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem saying that achieving peace and the option of two states on the 1967 borders are the way to bring security for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples,” peace negotiator Saeb Erakat told AFP.
Earlier, Obama’s edgy news conference with Abbas in Ramallah reflected Palestinian disappointment with his failure to live up to first-term vows to help forge a Palestinian state.
The frosty atmosphere lacked the bonhomie of his bonding session with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, as the two leaders, both starting new terms, sought to prove their prickly relationship was a thing of the past.
In Ramallah, Obama condemned the “continuing threat” of attacks from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip after two rockets hit southern Israel, near the town of Sderot.
The Salafist Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis group claimed the attack in a statement that condemned Obama’s visit to the region.
In front of Abbas, Obama said that the two-state solution was still a possibility, despite claims that Israeli settlement building had crushed Palestinian dreams of a contiguous state.
Although he singled out Israeli settlements on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state as a major impediment to reviving peace talks, Obama did not call for a new construction ban.
In private talks with Obama, Abbas said that a freeze was a must, according to his political adviser Nimr Hammad.