Pablo Martinez Monsivais Associated Press President Barack Obama views the Treasury, a facade that is believed to have been carved as a tomb for a king in the century before Christ, during his tour of the city of Petra in Jordan on Saturday.

Obama leaves mark on Mideast

Published: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6A
Last Modified: Sunday, Mar. 24, 2013 - 8:10 am

PETRA, Jordan – Content that he laid the groundwork for possible improvements in the Middle East, President Barack Obama played tourist Saturday, gazing at the wonder of the ancient city of Petra on his last stop of a four-day trip to the Mideast.

As he did, he left behind some signs of change in the region, most notably a potential rapprochement between Israel and Turkey. He also left a push to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks with Secretary of State John Kerry, who stayed behind to huddle with the principals, and a much warmer relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that could lead to a more united front in standing up to Iran's push to develop a nuclear weapon.

None of it suggested any dramatic turnarounds. His close embrace of Israel angered some Palestinians.

But things looked different when he left, and the first trip abroad of Obama's second term appeared to have been a success.

After days of talks with leaders in one of the most fractious regions of the world, Obama appeared content to let someone else do the talking Saturday at Petra. He walked down the dusty stone corridor between steep red rock, listening as his private tour guide pointed out the features of Petra, Jordan's most popular tourist attraction.

"This is pretty spectacular," he said as he looked at Al-Khazneh, or the Treasury, a facade carved into a limestone cliff and the best preserved of all the facades and carvings in Petra. It is believed to have been carved as a tomb for a king in the century before Christ.

A University of Jordan tourism professor led Obama on a tour down the narrow gorge called the Siq, delivering a steady stream of details about Petra and rarely stopping to take a breath. Obama, casual in a navy windbreaker, khaki pants and sunglasses, nodded, and took in the scenery.

He paused for a time to marvel at the Treasury, which got its name from the Bedouins because they believed – inaccurately – that the urns sculpted on top contained great treasure. Instead, a recent excavation found evidence of a grave site.

White House officials appeared buoyed by the trip – Obama's first to the region since the Arab Spring.

His most notable achievement was brokering the start of a reconciliation between Israel and Turkey. After months of prodding, Obama watched as Netanyahu apologized to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a 2010 Israeli attack on a ship nearing Gaza that killed nine Turkish nationals.

The phone call, made from a trailer on an Israeli airport tarmac as Obama was about to leave Israel, started to repair relations between Israel and a major Muslim country, both U.S. allies.

Obama also pushed for Israelis and Palestinians to work anew toward peace. He offered no U.S. blueprint, but dropped his insistence that Israel stop building housing settlements in the West Bank as a precondition to talks.

Kerry was holding meetings Saturday evening with Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

While the trip made progress, it is unclear if the White House will pursue peace talks, said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former adviser to Democratic and Republican secretaries of state.

"The fact that he's succeeded does not suggest in any way, shape or form that he's hooked or committed and he has decided to make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the central issue of his presidency," Miller said. "Given his other priorities, is he prepared to spend the time and energy and plow through the kind of friction that invariably will accompany any serious American initiative? The answer is no, unless he has a sense that this thing could work."

Still, Miller said Obama realized a number of outright successes, including neutralizing Republican attacks that he's not sufficiently pro-Israel. He also turned a "soap opera, roller coaster relationship" with Netanyahu into one that could be highly productive, particularly when it comes to dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

Palestinians were angered by Obama's decision to soften his language on Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territory. But Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to Palestinian peace negotiators and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Obama cast the trip as a chance to win over the Israeli public.

"They were careful to keep expectations low because then you can't lose," he said.

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Read more articles by Lesley Clark



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