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His Royal Shyness: King Hussein and Israel

In the autumn of 1996 I wrote to King Hussein and asked to talk to him about his meetings with Israeli leaders. I explained that I was writing a book on the Arab-Israeli conflict since 1948. The reply came from Brigadier Ali Shukri, the director of the King’s private office. “His Majesty has agreed to grant you an audience.”

On December 2, I had a phone call from Elizabeth Cook, the King’s secretary in Britain, asking if I could meet His Majesty in his house in Surrey the following morning, December 3. I accepted the invitation with alacrity although it gave me little time to prepare for an interview spanning four decades of tangled and tortuous Middle East history. I asked Ms. Cook how long the audience would last, and she replied with a question: “How long do you hope for?” “Two hours,” I said, but she thought that this might be too long.

A chauffeur in a silver Mercedes came to collect me in the morning from my house in Oxford. We passed through two security gates, and we arrived at an attractive country estate, surrounded by lawns and flower beds. The butler opened the door and led me to a large room with a huge fireplace and three sofas around a square coffee table in the middle of the room. I was offered something to drink, and was then joined by Brigadier Shukri. Shukri emphasized at the outset that this was indeed the first time that King Hussein had agreed to talk about his meetings with Israelis in the era preceding the 1994 peace treaty. I asked whether I could record the interview, and after a few seconds of hesitation, Shukri agreed and helped me to set up the recording machine.

Brigadier Shukri looked to be in his mid-forties, and he spoke perfect English. He said that King Hussein had excellent relations with Yitzhak Rabin because Rabin was a military man, and as such he was a great believer in directness. People knew where they stood when they spoke with Rabin, Shukri emphasized. Shimon Peres, on the other hand, is a politician, and one never knew where one stood with him. Many subjects that were discussed with Peres remained unclear and subject to different interpretations. His Majesty did not like that.

After a short while King Hussein came into the room and shook my hand warmly. He treated the meeting between us not as a favor to me, but as an exchange of views between equals. He was particularly keen to talk about the June 1967 war, and to explain that he actually had no choice but to throw in his lot with the other Arabs. A different decision would have provoked a civil war in Jordan.

During the interview the one question that seemed to make King Hussein uncomfortable concerned the warning that he is alleged to have given Golda Meir toward the end of September 1973 about the planned Arab attack on Israel. The King denied this, maintaining that he was surprised by the outbreak of war, and that there was never any question of Jordan joining the other Arab states in 1973. On other matters—for example, his meeting with Yitzhak Shamir on the eve of the Gulf War and his relations with Yitzhak Rabin—King Hussein provided historically important information that had previously been unknown.

When the interview was over, the King invited me to contact him at any time and added with a smile: “I think we covered quite a lot of ground.” Brigadier Shukri said: “You will probably need two or three more sessions with His Majesty to cover the ground.” This was very reassuring because I had a long-term plan to write a book on King Hussein and the quest for peace in the Middle East. Alas, the plan was cut short by the King’s death on February 7, 1999.

Avi Shlaim: Let me start with a general question. When you ascended the throne in 1953 what were your initial impressions and thoughts about Israel?

King Hussein: My initial thoughts and impressions were ones of not knowing very much of what actually the Israelis and their leadership thought or had in mind regarding the future of our region. At the same time it was a period of violence. There had apparently been from time to time some incursions [by Arabs] over the long cease-fire line. We had the longest line, longer than all the Arab cease-fire lines with Israel put together. And Israel’s responses were extremely severe, extremely devastating with attacks on villages, on police posts, and civilians along the long cease-fire line. Obviously, I was not very happy with that and it caused us a great deal of difficulty in terms of the internal scene in Jordan.

Egypt’s attitude toward us was another problem, especially given the rise of Gamal Abdel Nasser as the leader of the Arab world. Jordan was placed in the position of the conspirator or the betrayer and this was the perpetual thrust of the Egyptian propaganda machine. So that undermined even further the situation within Jordan itself. The Palestinians looked toward Egypt as the major power in the area and treated whatever was said there as the gospel truth. The Israeli raids worsened the situation in Jordan. They showed us as being incompetent and unable to defend our territory. And the Israeli attacks continued although we had done everything that we could to prevent infiltration and to prevent access to Israel.

So this was the atmosphere in which I lived my first years—plus the loss of my grandfather, which was another factor. I knew that he [King Abdullah] had tried his best for peace and that he had not achieved it. But I did not have any details. When I assumed responsibility, I looked for papers to do with my grandfather’s reign, but unfortunately no documents were found. So I didn’t have any idea as to what exactly had happened.1 But gradually there was more and more of a feeling that, for whatever reason, we had a neighbor, a people who were close to us historically, whom circumstances in the world had forced into our region. The dilemma was how to avoid mutual destruction and how to find a way of living together once again and not to continue to pay the high price which was not fair on either side. That was in fact what went on in my mind at that time, apart from the thoughts on how to strengthen my country.

In 1967 I had the impression that various events happened without one having anything to do with them and that this was going to be a problem. We came under pressure to hand over the control of our army and our destiny to a unified Arab command as part of the Arab League. And when Nasser moved his forces across the Suez Canal into Sinai, I knew that war was inevitable. I knew that we were going to lose. I knew that we in Jordan were threatened, threatened by two things: we either followed the course we did; or alternately the country would tear itself apart if we stayed out, and Israel would march into the West Bank and maybe even beyond. So these were the choices before us. It wasn’t a question of our thinking there was any chance of winning. We knew where we were. We knew what the results would be. But it was the only way and we did our best and the results were the disaster we have lived with ever since.

A.S.: I believe that your first meeting with an Israeli official was with Yaakov Herzog—then the Cabinet Secretary in the Levi Eskol government—in September 1963. What was the background to this meeting and what was the purpose?

K.H.: My purpose throughout since the 1960s was to try to see if there is any way to resolve the problem. I felt that, as a person in a position of responsibility, next door to Israel, there was no way that I could live with myself just sitting idly by and not knowing what I am dealing with. I had to explore, I had to find out what is the thinking in Palestine. There is no future in war, there is no future in further suffering for people, either them or us. So one had to know. One had to break that barrier and begin a dialogue whether it led anywhere immediately or not. But it was important to have it direct and firsthand and not to let other players manipulate us. By chance I had a very, very good friend who looked after my health here [in England], Dr. Emmanuel Herbert.2 He was a man who really believed in peace in our region and wished to see it happen. So I think he offered the possibility of some contact and I said “fine.” That is how it started. Trying to explore, trying to find out what the other side of this issue was like. What was the face of it?

A.S.: The second meeting was apparently with Foreign Minister Golda Meir and Yaakov Herzog in Paris in autumn 1965.

K.H.: Yes, I recall that meeting. It was following our decision, on the Arab side, at least, to divert the waters of the Jordan River and I tried to explain that we were acting to preserve what rights we had and that I hoped that eventually these contacts would enable us to figure a way out of the entire dilemma. And we were not talking about a country hundreds of miles away. We were talking about two peoples who were destined to live together in a very small region and who had to figure how to resolve our common problems. If we looked at water, it was a problem that both of us suffered from. If we looked at even a flu epidemic, it affected both of us. Every aspect of our lives was interrelated and interlinked in some way or another. And to simply ignore that was something I could not understand. One had to do something, one had to explore what was possible.

A.S.: What was your impression of Golda Meir? Was it a beneficial meeting?

K.H.: It was a good meeting. It was really just a meeting to break the ice, to get to know one another. And we talked about our dreams for our children and grandchildren, to live in an era of peace in the region. And I think she suggested that maybe a day would come when we could put aside all the armaments and create a monument in Jerusalem which would signify peace between us and where our young people could see what a futile struggle it had been and what a heavy burden it had been on both sides. Essentially it didn’t go beyond that. There wasn’t very much indeed that happened, just an agreement to keep in touch whenever possible.

  1. 1

    See Avi Shlaim, The Politics of Partition: King Abdullah, the Zionists, and Palestine, 1921-1951 (Oxford University Press, 1990; reissued with a new preface, 1998).

  2. 2

    Dr. Herbert was Jewish. The first, and some of the subsequent, meetings between King Hussein and the Israeli officials took place in his clinic in London. It is interesting to note that the initiative for these face-to-face meetings came from the Jordanian rather than the Israeli side.

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