UNEASY LAY THE CROWN

(KING HUSSEIN 1935-1999 )

King Hussein of Jordan died on February 7, after a long battle with lymphatic cancer. Israeli leaders joined those from more than 70 other countries to attend his funeral in Amman

Hussein's successor, Abdallah II, assured Israel that he intends to follow his father's policies, including that of peace with Israel.

Nonetheless, some Jordanian analysts predicted a cooling in the Jordanian-Israeli relationship, in the absence of a king whose popularity and stature enabled him to defy domestic opposition and sign a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1994.

King Hussein, 63, ruled Jordan for 47 years, emerging after decades of conflict--and despite some grave miscalculations--as a force for peace and stability in the rough neighbourhood that is the Middle East

For many Israelis, he was the single Arab ruler who seemed to embrace peace ungrudgingly, who went the distance--in contrast to Egyptian and Palestinian leaders--to seek a genuine and heart-felt end to hostilities with the Jewish state.

That attitude was spelled out by Hussein himself, when he told a recent gathering in Europe: "Jordan and Israel are at peace now and I am determined not to have it become a peace between governments, but a peace between people."

It was borne out in 1995 during his poignant eulogy at the graveside of assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and again in March 1997, when he visited the family homes of Israeli schoolgirls shot dead by a deranged Jordanian soldier.

On the day the king died, PM Binyamin Netanyahu called him "an apostle of good will, a visionary with a healthy grasp of the real, a dreamer with a thorough understanding of the possible, a man of infinite courage who craved peace with all his soul."

Hussein bin Talal was born on November 14, 1935, grandson of Abdallah, king of Transjordan--an artificial entity created by Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill "in an afternoon" by splitting off the eastern two-thirds of British-mandated Palestine in 1923.

In 1948, Zionist leaders in Jerusalem accepted the United Nations plan to partition the remaining one-third of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, and established the state of Israel. The Arabs rejected the UN plan, and attacked the nascent Jewish state, with Jordan's Arab Legion in the forefront of the campaign to destroy Israel.

The war ended with the Jordanians in control of eastern Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. These areas were annexed to Jordan for the next 19 years, during which time 56 synagogues and many Jewish graves were destroyed or desecrated in Jerusalem, and Jews were forbidden to pray at their holiest site.

Hussein was just 15 when he saw his grandfather assassinated by a Palestinian Arab at Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque in 1951. His father, Talal, became king but just one year later was removed from the throne because of mental illness.

The young Hussein became king on August 11, 1952, four years after Transjordan changed its name to Jordan. His subsequent rule saw him survive numerous threats against his life and his country, as he struggled to balance Muslim-Arab expectations with those of his western patrons (first Britain; later the US).

Under Hussein, Churchill's creation was to become a strategically-located Arab state, a buffer between Israel and Iraq to the west and east, and Syria and Saudi Arabia to the north and south. While he was certainly no democrat, he ruled with a relatively enlightened hand, in time allowing freedoms unheard of in Arab states.

At the same time, Hussein was roundly lambasted in the Arab world by those who saw him as a puppet of the West. The precariousness of his reign was borne out by at least six assassination attempts, as when Syrian airforce jets tried to shoot down his plane, or palace conspirators attempted to poison him.

As he sought to find Jordan's role in the region, Hussein at times miscalculated badly. In 1967, bowing to massive domestic pressure and fooled by Egyptian intelligence reports, he threw in his lot with Egypt and Syria as tensions spiralled into the Six Day War. Despite boasting the best-trained army in the Arab world, Hussein lost Judea-Samaria and eastern Jerusalem--including the Temple Mount--to Israel. This was a double blow to Hussein's Hashemite family, which claims direct descent from Mohammed, and had already lost the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina to the rival House of Saud.

The next crisis followed quickly. Palestinians, comprising 60 per cent of Hussein's population, were being stirred up by the strengthening forces of the PLO. By 1970, Yasser Arafat's fedayeen had practically established a state within a state in the kingdom, levying taxes from Palestinians and manning roadblocks at will.

Emboldened by terrorist successes elsewhere, the PLO attempted to demonstrate its supremacy by hijacking and then blowing up three airliners in Jordan. A humiliated Hussein sent in his security forces to crush the PLO. During the brief civil war later dubbed "Black September", thousands of Palestinians were killed before the surviving fighters fled to Lebanon. Syria seized the opportunity to threaten an invasion, but the Jordanian army--and Israeli threats to attack Syria--made a quick end to the attempt.

Hussein's action against the PLO, and his subsequent refusal to send anything more than a token force during the Arab attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, 1973, made him even more enemies in the Arab world. An Arab League decision in 1974 to recognise the PLO as "the sole, legitimate representative of the Palestinian people" compelled the king to gradually improve ties with Arafat.

As early as 1963, Hussein had launched secret negotiations with Israeli leaders, a slow but steady backdoor strategy that won him the respect of the Israelis he met, and built the foundations of the future peace treaty. He later admitted that he had secretly met every Israeli prime minister except Menachem Begin, who refused to do so.

As he entered the last decade of his life, Hussein made another ill-fated error, bowing to domestic pro-Iraqi sentiment and backing Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. While his stance earned the praise of Arab nationalists, it came as a blow to Israel, and upset the Western and Arab states making up the anti-Iraq coalition during the 1991 Gulf War.

Angry Gulf states cut substantial financial aid to Hussein, and shunned him diplomatically for the next eight years. The US administration, on the other hand, quickly overlooked Hussein's blunder, keen to include him in renewed attempts to forge Mideast peace, planned for Madrid later that year.

The process launched at Madrid, and continued in secret in Norway, eventually led to the signing of the interim Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO in 1993. A year later, Hussein signed a full peace treaty with Israel, an unpopular step for many Jordanians. While some Israelis distrusted the motives of the king who seemed to sway so often and so easily between a pro-western and Arabist line, Hussein himself claimed that making peace with Israel was "a dream of a lifetime".

In the years since, as he struggled with cancer, Hussein played a key role in continuing peace efforts between Israel and the Palestinians (routinely supporting the Palestinian side), mostly recently mediating during tough talks at the Wye Plantation in Maryland.

Relations with Israel were not always easy, particularly since the 1996 election of Netanyahu. But his death came as a blow to Israelis always eager to find a friendly face in the Arab world, many of whom came to refer to him as "our king, too".

(Patrick Goodenough)


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