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Jordan's king postpones meeting with Bush

AMMAN, Jordan -- In a surprise move, King Abdullah II postponed a White House meeting with President Bush this week, citing questions yesterday about the US commitment to the Middle East peace process.

The announcement by one of Washington's closest allies comes amid Arab anger at Bush for endorsing an Israeli proposal to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank in exchange for US support for keeping Jewish settlements on other land claimed by the Palestinians.

Bush's statement after a White House meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week constituted a historic shift in US policy toward the region.

The White House played down any hint of friction, saying the Wednesday meeting with Abdullah was rescheduled to the first week of May "because of developments in the region."

"The king decided this week it was better for him to be in Jordan and we understand that," said National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack.

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, especially in light of the latest statements by officials in the American administration."

Jordan is considered a key moderate ally of the United States and is one of only two of Israel's Arab neighbors to have a peace treaty with the Jewish state. But some Jordanian citizens question their government's relationship with the United States, which they accuse of siding with Israel against the Palestinians.

Abdullah is under pressure at home to demonstrate his US ties can further Arab positions on the Israeli-Palestinian question as well as on the US occupation of Iraq.

Jordan is especially concerned that a final peace settlement would be at its expense if refugees were dumped into the kingdom, exhausting its meager resources and disturbing its demographic balance. Roughly half of Jordan's 5.1 million population consists of Palestinian families who fled or were forced out of their homes in 1948 and 1967 Mideast wars.

The rift between the Bush administration and its moderate Arab allies over Bush's statement on Israeli settlements is one of the worst to emerge in years, and has exacerbated the already tense relations between the United States and Arab countries over the war in Iraq.

Arab leaders have accused the Bush administration of essentially taking away from the Palestinians their primary negotiating levers with Israel in any final peace deal -- the disputes over whether Israel must remove all settlements from the West Bank, and whether Israel must allow back some Palestinian refugees.

Bush embraced Israeli rejection of any "right of return" for Palestinian refugees after his meeting with Sharon. Tensions also were inflamed by an Israeli helicopter strike that killed the Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi.

On Saturday, the Palestinian foreign minister, Nabil Shaath, also canceled a trip to Washington for an expected meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell tomorrow.

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