WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden praised King Abdullah II of Jordan as a stalwart ally in a “tough neighborhood” as the two leaders huddled at the White House on Monday, a meeting that came at a pivotal moment for both leaders in the Middle East.
Last week a Jordanian state security court sentenced two former officials to 15 years in prison over an alleged plot against the king uncovered earlier this year that involved Abdullah's half-brother.
Meanwhile, Biden, who has put much of his foreign policy focus on China and Russia in the early going, faces some difficult issues in the Middle East. He is dealing with stepped-up attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria by Iranian-backed militias at the same moment that his administration is trying to nudge Iran back to the negotiating table to revive the nuclear agreement that Donald Trump abandoned during his presidency.
“You have always been there, and we will always be there for Jordan,” Biden said during an Oval Office meeting with Abdullah and his son, the Crown Prince Hussein.
Abdullah had a difficult relationship with Trump, who he saw as undercutting any chance for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians with his 2017 declaration of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. He also chaffed at the Trump administration's pursuit of what officials called the Abraham Accords — deals with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Morocco that normalized relations with Israel but left out the Palestinians.
Biden has no plans to reverse U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital. His administration has even praised the Trump-brokered accords — a rare instance of the Democratic administration speaking positively of the former administration.
Biden planned to stress to Abdullah in private that the accords are not an “end run" on finding the way to a peace deal that includes a Palestinian state, according to a senior administration official who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Abdullah, for his part, praised Biden for “setting the standard” internationally in the battle against COVID-19. The U.S. delivered 500,000 vaccines to Jordan days ahead of the king’s visit. The king also appeared to make clear that he was looking to reset the U.S. - Jordan relationship after a four bumpy years with Trump.
“You can always count on me, my country, and many of our colleagues in the region,” Abdullah said.
The two leaders discussed the situation in Syria — more than 1 million Syrian refugees have fled the war-ravaged nation for Jordan — and a wobbly security situation in Iraq, an administration official said. At least eight drone attacks have targeted the U.S. military presence in Iraq since Biden took office in January, as well as 17 rocket attacks.
Abdullah is set to have a working breakfast Tuesday with Vice President Kamala Harris and to meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The meeting with Biden was also a chance for the king to spotlight his closeness to Biden following the attempted coup.
Bassem Awadallah, who has U.S. citizenship and once served as a top aide to King Abdullah II, and Sharif Hassan bin Zaid, a member of the royal family, were found guilty of sedition and incitement charges. Both men denied the charges and Awadallah’s U.S. lawyer said his client alleged he was tortured in Jordanian detention and fears for his life.
They are alleged to have conspired with Prince Hamzah, the king’s half-brother. Biden, who has known Abdullah for years, was quick to publicly express “strong U.S. support for Jordan" and praise the king's leadership after details of the coup attempt were unveiled in April.
It's unclear if Biden raised the United States' long-standing call to extradite Ahlam Ahmad al-Tamimi, a Palestinian woman living in Jordan who is wanted by the U.S. on a charge of conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction against American nationals.
The Trump administration last year indicated it was considering withholding aid to Jordan in a bid to secure al-Tamimi's extradition. She was convicted in Israel of a 2001 bombing of a Tel Aviv restaurant that killed 15 people, including two American citizens. She has lived freely in Jordan since she was released in a Hamas-Israel prisoner swap in 2011.
Biden administration officials have previously made clear to Jordan that the extradition of al-Tamimi, who is on the FBI's most wanted list, is of “high-interest” to the United States, according to the administration official.
Arnold Roth, whose 15-year-old daughter, Malki, was killed in the bombing, noted that Biden has spoken frequently of “decency” and “dignity” as paramount values in how he'll run his administration. Roth and his wife, Frimet, wrote Blinken and other administration officials last month calling on the administration to press Abdullah for extradition. He said they received no response from the administration beyond acknowledgement that their letter was received.
“I can’t think of two words that more powerfully encapsulate what we’ve been deprived of in all of our dealings with the U.S. government,” Roth said.