US PRESIDENT Barack Obama wrapped up a four-day Middle East tour yesterday with a visit to an ancient Roman city in Jordan.
Setting aside the diplomatic issues which have dominated his trip, he was tourist for the day in Petra.
He arrived in Jordan after visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories. A highpoint was his brokering of a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey. But there was little progress towards Middle East peace, despite gestures of goodwill.
Before heading to Petra, Obama used his stop in Jordan to ratchet up criticism of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, but he stopped short of promising military aid to Syrian rebels to help end a two-year civil war that has claimed 70,000 lives.
US officials privately voiced satisfaction with Obama’s first foreign trip of his second term, but the president’s aides had set expectations so low it was not hard to proclaim it a mission accomplished.
Shifting into sightseeing mode yesterday, Obama flew by helicopter to Petra and took a walking tour of the restored ruins of the 2,000-year-old city, part-carved into sandstone cliffs.
Ordinary tourists had been cleared out for the president’s visit, and guards with assault weapons dogged his every step.
“This is pretty spectacular,” the president, wearing sunglasses, khaki trousers and a dark jacket, said as he craned his neck to look up at the Treasury, a towering rose-red façade cut into a mountain. “It’s amazing.”
Obama arrived in Jordan on Friday after an unexpected diplomatic triumph in Israel, where he announced a breakthrough in relations between Israel and Turkey after a telephone conversation between the countries’ prime ministers.
Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu apologised to Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Israel’s behalf for the killing of nine Turkish citizens in a 2010 naval raid on a Gaza-bound blockade-busting flotilla. The two feuding US allies agreed to normalise ties.
The 30-minute call was made in a runway trailer at Tel Aviv airport, where Obama and Netanyahu huddled before the president boarded Air Force One for his flight to Jordan.
The rapprochement could help Washington marshal regional efforts to contain spillover from the Syrian civil war and ease Israel’s diplomatic isolation in the Middle East as it faces challenges posed by Iran’s controversial nuclear programme.
During his visit, Obama appeared to have made some headway in easing Israelis’ suspicions of him, calming their concerns about his commitment to confronting Iran and soothing his relationship with the hawkish Netanyahu.
Obama attempted to show Palestinians he had not forgotten their hope for statehood but he left many disappointed that he had backtracked from previous demands for a halt to Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank.
He offered no new peace proposals but promised his administration would stay engaged while putting the onus on the two sides to set aside mutual distrust and restart long-dormant negotiations – a step he failed to bring about in his first term.