A growing rift between America and the Arab world was exposed yesterday when two Middle Eastern allies delivered damaging rebuffs to President George Bush's policies in the region.
King Abdullah of Jordan flew home from the US after abruptly canceling a meeting planned for today with the president in Washington. The king's move came as the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, said there was more hatred of Americans in the Arab world today than ever before.
King Abdullah and Mr Mubarak are two of the most moderate leaders in the Middle East and the two normally closest to the US.
The White House scrambled on April 20, 2004 to mend diplomatic fences with Jordan's King Abdullah, who abruptly postponed a meeting with President Bush because of concerns over the U.S. stance on the Middle East. King Abdullah is seen in San Francisco April 16. Photo by Kimberly White/Reuters
King Abdullah's cancellation was in retaliation for Mr Bush's support last week for a plan by the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, in which he offered to pull out of Gaza in return for US recognition of illegal settlements on the West Bank and an end of the right of 3.6 million Palestinians to return to Israel.
Mr Mubarak cited as reasons for the increased hatred Israel and the US occupation of Iraq. In an interview with Le Monde published yesterday, he said : "After what has happened in Iraq, there is an unprecedented hatred. What's more - they [Arabs] see Sharon act as he wants, without the Americans saying anything".
The Jordanian government said yesterday it was seeking clarification of US intentions towards Israel and the Palestinians before agreeing to a new meeting with Mr Bush.
Mr Bush's administration yesterday tried to play down the rift with one of its few allies in the Middle East. The secretary of state, Colin Powell, said the White House remained committed to a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, and was not acting in the interests of the Jewish state.
"I think people will see over time that the US is committed to the welfare and benefit and the hopes and dreams and aspirations of Arab nations," he told reporters,
Pressure on King Abdullah to make a gesture has been building in Jordan, half of whose population is made up of Palestinians.
There has long been a threat of an Islamist militant backlash, a point reinforced yesterday when the Jordanian government said it had killed three militants in a shootout in the capital, Amman.
A Jordanian government spokeswoman, Asma Khader, said yesterday that King Abdullah, who had been in the US for a business conference, still wanted to meet Mr Bush but felt more time was needed to prepare for it.
A palace statement said the meeting would not be held "until discussions and deliberations are concluded with officials in the American administration to clarify the American position on the peace process and the final situation in the Palestinian territories."
The Arab League, which represents all Arab countries, welcomed the king's decision to cancel his meeting. Ali Muhsin Hamid, its London ambassador, said Mr Bush's statement had reduced US-Arab relations to a level comparable to 1967.
The countries are trying to get a resolution through the UN condemning the assassination of the Hamas leader, Abdel-Aziz Rantissi. About 40 countries have spoken in the debate so far, all of them - other than the US - critical of Israel.
Mr Sharon secured his deal with Mr Bush partly through brinkmanship, sitting at Ben Gurion airport for three hours last week and threatening to cancel his Washington visit. Mr Bush caved in.
But similar tactics by King Abdullah are unlikely to achieve the same result. The palace statement said the king had written to Mr Bush before his meeting with Mr Sharon saying the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza had to be part of an overall peace plan, not an alternative to it. But Mr Bush ignored his plea.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004