King Abdullah II and Queen Rania of Jordan
(Photo: Royal Hashemite Court Archives, Nasser Ayoub)
(Photo: Royal Hashemite Court Archives, Nasser Ayoub)
King Abdullah II of Jordan today addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate in the U.S. Congress. Ahead of his trip to the United States, the King reiterated his conviction that time is running out for a peace settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. Last Friday, the ruler of the Hashemite Kingdom criticized Israel for dragging its feet, and called upon it to choose between the "prisoner mentality of 'Israel the fortress'" and living in peace with its neighbors.
Today, the King urged the U.S. to commit itself to a revival of the peace process, cutting out the criticism of Israel:
I come to you today at a rare and indeed historic moment of opportunity when there is a new international will to end the catastrophe. And I believe that America with its enduring values, its moral repsonsibility, and yes, its unprecedented power must play the central role.King Abdullah's speech was of course long on vision and short on policy. But that is to be expected for an address like this. The Jordanian ruler pointed to the Arab Peace Initiative as a basis, but also referred to the Taba and Geneva accords.
Today I must speak, and I cannot be silent. I must speak about a cause that is urgent for your people and mine. I must speak about peace in the Middle East.
In his flawless, unaccented American English, King Abdullah appealed directly to American values, invoking F.D.R. and referring repeatedly to the hope for freedom, peace, and prosperity. Standing in front of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Dick Cheney, he projected optimism and the air of a serious statesman. The CPSAN camera panned several times to his beautiful, smiling wife, Queen Rania, watching the proceedings with other members of the royal family, and with her hair uncovered. There is no doubt that King Abdullah can put himself on the map as the most popular Arab leader in America today, provided that parts of his address make the television screens. He certainly communicates better with Americans than Olmert could ever hope to. I would even say that he put on a better show than Bibi would have - Americans like optimism a lot more than pathos and dire warnings.
In light of this, I was surprised (or perhaps not) to read the FOX News web coverage of the address. According to FOX,
Top House Democrats said Wednesday they are "disappointed" with Jordanian King Abdullah's address to a joint meeting of Congress in which he singled out the plight of Palestinians without mentioning the role of Palestinian groups in preventing a Mideast peace.It is true that King Abdullah did not mention Hamas's refusal to recognize the State of Israel. To be sure, the King is trying hard to pressure the U.S. to force the Israelis forward, and thereby to ease his own domestic problems and improve Jordan's strategic situation. And yes, it's possible that Tom Lantos and Joe Lieberman were not enthusiastic about King Abdullah's words, especially in light of his remarks last week. But the FOX coverage would have one believe that King Abdullah's speech was a complete failure. That is simply not the case.
In a room with a number of pro-Israeli politicians, the king devoted his speech to discussing an end to the conflict in the Middle East, but he focused primarily on the needs of the Palestinians and suggested that Israel was holding up the peace process.
The King played the role of "moderate Arab leader" and trusted American ally perfectly. No backbencher and no ordinary American could have come away from the address thinking that this was a one-sided, Israel-bashing speech. While the King spoke of the "denial of justice and peace in Palestine" and referred to "60 years of dispossession and 40 years of occupation," he never blamed Israel directly for this history. He referred not only to the "Lebanese father saving money to send his children to college" and to the "Palestinian child on the way to school," but also to the "Israeli mother" fearfully watching her son board a bus. He invoked the memory of his own deceased father, King Hussein, who spoke to the U.S. Congress more than a decade ago, together with former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin z"l. The message was clear: back then, the U.S. committed itself to a negotiated peace settlement, and today it must continue that legacy. It was a potent expression of his opposition to unilateral solutions:
In 1994 with Israeli PM Yitzhak* Rabin beside him, [my father] spoke of a new vision for the Middle East. And their courageous work received bipartisan support from your leaders. And there was tremendous hope for a new era, that people would be brought together, that a final and comprehensive settlement of all the issues would be achieved. Thirteen years later that work is still not completed. And until it is, we are all at risk. We are all at risk of being victims of further violence resulting from ideologies of terror and hatred. It is our greatest and most urgent duty to prevent such dangers to our region, to your country, and to the world. The choice is ours: an open world full of promise, progress, and justice for all. Or a world closed, divided peoples, fear, and unfulfilled dreams. Nothing impacts this choice more than the future of peace in the Middle East.* For people interested in this kind of stuff: logically enough, the Jordanian King pronounced the het in Rabin's first name as a voiceless pharyngeal fricative - this is noteworthy only because, besides the Arabic phrases, King Abdullah spoke without the trace of any accent. Americans, of course, pronounce Rabin's first name with a simple h or sometimes with a voiceless velar fricative (as in Bach). And while we are indulging in glossophilia - the King also made a comment about his New England boarding school experience, where he learned that "one should only talk if what one has to say will improve on silence."
King Abdullah's speech was interrupted several times with enthusiastic applause. He gave Americans what they wanted to hear - an appreciation for America's traditional role in the world and an inclusive vision of a future Middle East. And he managed to do this specifically as an Arab and Muslim leader, pointedly beginning and ending his speech in Arabic.
Opening with the words bismillah al-rahman al-rahim [In the Name of God the most Graceful and Compassionate] and concluding with the greeting salam aleikum, which, he translated for the benefit of the audience, as "peace be upon you," King Abdullah expressed his pride at standing in the House chamber ("this historic institution") as his father had done in 1994. He gave "shout-outs" to Nancy Pelosi and Keith Ellison, telling legislators that
It is a special privilege to be here in the year that the American Congress welcomes its first woman speaker and its first Muslim-American member of Congress.Ellison returned the favor by answering the King's salam at the end of the speech.
The full CSPAN video of the King's address is now up.