Jordan’s King Abdullah II paid a rare visit to the West Bank on Monday to show support for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as the two moderate leaders try to engage with previously shunned Islamists now on the rise in the region.
Abbas is holding power-sharing talks later this week with Khaled Mashaal, the top leader of the rival Islamic militant group Hamas. The two will try to end a bitter split caused by Hamas’ violent takeover of Gaza in 2007 that left Abbas’ government in control only of the West Bank. Mashaal is also set to pay an official visit to Jordan, his first since the movement was expelled in 1999.
Abdullah and Abbas have met frequently in Jordan, which serves as the Palestinian leader’s second home base.
The king’s visit Monday to the West Bank is only his third in 12 years as monarch – and first in more than a decade. It’s seen mainly as an acknowledgment of Abbas as the sole legitimate Palestinian leader and an attempt to forestall any negative fallout from Mashaal’s upcoming Jordan trip.
A rapidly changing regional constellation has forced Abbas and Jordan’s king to reach out to former Islamist foes.
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Asked about Mashaal’s upcoming visit, the kingdom’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh insisted that Jordan keeps channels of communication “open with everyone.”
Abbas later praised the king’s visit as a “generous initiative,” in remarks carried by the Palestinian news agency Wafa. On the issue of Jordan-Hamas rapprochement, Abbas said he closely co-ordinates with the king and supports whatever Abdullah decides to do for the benefit of his country.
Abbas and Abdullah have been among the staunchest proponents of a peace deal with Israel.
However, there’s little chance of reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks. Negotiations broke down three years ago, in part because Abbas does not believe he can reach a deal with Israel’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who refuses to halt settlement expansion on occupied lands.
Meanwhile, Islamist movements have been gaining ground across the region amid the Arab Spring uprisings, which have brought down pro-Western dictators in Egypt and Tunisia.
Abdullah – whose country signed a peace deal with Israel in 1994 – was not visiting Israel on Monday, and Israeli officials had no comment on his visit to the West Bank.
Abbas is due to meet Mashaal in the Egyptian capital Cairo later this week to try to give a new push to inter-Palestinian power-sharing talks. The two reached a reconciliation agreement in principle earlier this year, but talks stalled over the composition of an interim unity government.
After meeting with Abbas, Mashaal will travel to Jordan for his first official visit since he and other Hamas leaders were expelled more than a decade ago.
Hamas’ parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, has gained influence across the region as part of the anti-government protests. Jordan’s own Brotherhood has led pro-democracy demonstrations across the kingdom in recent months.
Jordanian officials have said Mashaal’s visit might include a meeting with the king but that a date has not been set. The officials insist Jordan would not allow Hamas to reopen its offices in the kingdom, but that the visit would mark an end to the Jordan-Hamas estrangement.
After Jordan expelled Mashaal and four other Hamas leaders in 1999 for activities deemed harmful to the state, Mashaal set up camp in exile in Syria, from where he heads the militant Palestinian group’s political bureau. Jordan also blacklisted Hamas after an alleged weapons cache was discovered in the country five years ago.
Since then, Mashaal was allowed to enter Jordan twice on humanitarian grounds – in August 2009 to attend his father’s funeral, and again last month to visit his ailing mother. Jordan’s newly appointed Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh said recently that expelling Mashaal, who holds a Jordanian passport, was a “legal and constitutional mistake which must be fixed.”
Associated Press writer Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan contributed to this report.