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Fishing in the Dead Sea

Of all the Arab nations created out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the Emirate of Transjordan was the most ill-favored. A barren splinter of land tapering south to the Red Sea, its borders made no political or geographical sense. It was home to just 230,000 people, and had a single railway line and scarcely a road. Crucially, in later years—1948–1949, 1967—it would be drowned in waves of Palestinian refugees. Plagued by water scarcity, it had few industrial resources and no oil.

This roughcast nation was created by the British in a spirit of mixed expediency and guilt. In 1916 the Hashemite Sha-rif Hussein of Mecca, titular guardian of Arabia’s holy places, instigated the Great Arab Revolt against the Turks, with the fragile understanding that the British had promised him rule over a postwar Arab Middle East. Instead, the liberated lands were parceled up between the colonial powers, first in secret in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement between Britain and France, and then at the 1919 Paris peace conference. The embittered sharif remained king of the Arabian Hijaz (which he was to lose to Saudi rivals in 1924, when it became Saudi Arabia), while the British assumed control of Iraq and Palestine, and the French of Syria and Lebanon. Soon afterward, the sharif’s third son, Faisal, was handed Iraq as a consolation prize for losing Syria; and by a stroke of the pen, Churchill, then colonial secretary, accorded the sharif’s second son, the ambitious Abdullah, the makeshift Transjordan Emirate under British mandate—but (as the foreign secretary, Lord Curzon, commented) he was “much too big a cock for so small a dunghill.”

Abdullah was the grandfather, mentor, and model of the young King Hussein. As a Hashemite and descendant of the Prophet, Abdullah conceived his ancestral destiny as leader of the Arab peoples. With the outbreak of the Arab–Jewish war in 1948, he moved his British-trained Arab Legion into the Palestinian heartland, and the ensuing peace left him in control of territory a few miles from the Mediterranean, with the prize of East Jerusalem. So together with Israel—and perhaps in tacit collusion—Abdullah aborted Palestinian hopes for a state; and it was a Palestinian nationalist who shot him dead in 1951 outside the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem before the horrified eyes of his grandson. Hussein himself only survived the assassin’s second bullet because it ricocheted off the medal (for school fencing) that his grandfather had insisted he wear.

The enlarged but fragile kingdom became Hussein’s patrimony a year later, when his mentally ill father abdicated. Hussein was crowned king at the age of seventeen, and soon found himself on the political tightrope that he was to tread until his death forty-six years later. Few gave the boy-king long to reign, or even to live. A monarch in a republican age, legitimized by a British Empire that was fading, he found himself governing a country half of whose inhabitants were hostile Palestinians, surrounded by volatile Arab states and a newly forceful Israel. The cold war loomed in the background, and his treasury was empty. His entire reign was spent in crisis, domestic or foreign. He survived countless assassination attempts, from the machine-gunning of his motorcade by fedayeen in 1970 (twice) to the poisoning of his medicine and food—but the would-be assassin first practiced on the palace cats, whose deaths betrayed him.

Three English-language biographies of the King were published before his death,1 but none was as full or as deeply researched as the two under review (and neither book cites them much). Both the present works, inevitably, are more political than personal studies. Virtually the King’s whole life was spent in foreign affairs, and his story becomes the story of the Middle East over half a century.

Avi Shlaim’s Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace is the fuller and more passionately engaged. Shlaim, a professor of international relations at Oxford, is prominent among the so-called “new historians,” Israeli scholars who have radically reassessed Zionist history and the foundation of Israel. Together with Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé (whose political views have now drastically diverged), he has critically analyzed the founding myths of Israel, sometimes using declassified Israeli documents. Lion of Jordan follows on from Shlaim’s Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine, published in 1988. Alongside extensive interviews with Jordanian, Israeli, and Western officials, he is the first to have full access to the papers of Dr. Yaacov Herzog, the high Israeli government official most intimately involved in Hussein’s first, secret contacts with the Israelis.

Shlaim writes in frustration that Jordan has “no proper national archive.” But Nigel Ashton, senior lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, was granted unique access in 2007 to its nearest equivalent, the Royal Hashemite Archives in Amman, which contains the King’s private correspondence. His King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life, while less expansive than Shlaim’s book, is a scrupulously balanced and finely documented account, buttressed by his own (smaller) range of interviews and new archival research.

Both historians, of course, must negotiate a minefield of complex and still politically charged issues. Jordan’s modern history is entwined with that not only of Israel, but of the often opaque doings of its Arab neighbors (whose archives are closed) and of Britain and the United States. The leitmotif of both books is the tortuous and unflagging peacemaking efforts, both official and secret, of King Hussein with Israel. But these are interspersed with wars and internal crises enough to break the will of a less high-spirited man.

Early in his reign, Hussein, pilloried by the Arabs as a colonial lackey (he had been educated at Harrow and Sandhurst), divested himself of overt British tutelage and sacked General John Bagot Glubb, the commander of his Arab Legion, with uncharacteristic brutality. That same year the still naive King almost pitched himself against Israel during the Suez crisis. Thereafter, with the British connection severed, his need for financial and military security was continuous. He dabbled with liberal democracy but ended by staging a royal coup against his “leftist” prime minister, Suleiman Nabulsi, and faced down mutinous officers in his own army.

The appointment and dismissal of governments became a regular tactic of his paternalist autocracy. In 1958, when his cousin King Faisal of Iraq was bloodily overthrown, he shored up his faltering reign—now the last Hashemite kingdom—with the help of British arms: a bitter humiliation in Arab eyes. Then came the disastrous June 1967 war, in which Jordan lost the West Bank to Israel and received a flood of 200,000 refugees.

How was it, Shlaim asks rhetorically, that in the aftermath of this debacle Jordan attained such diplomatic stature? The answer, he writes,

largely lies in the personality and policies of King Hussein. He was a strong, energetic and charismatic leader who commanded the attention of the great powers by sheer persistence and force of personality. Hussein’s unique brand of personal diplomacy enabled Jordan to exert an influence in foreign affairs that was out of all proportion to its real power. Hussein was the only Arab ruler who had intimate relations with America and relations of any kind at all with Israel, the greatest taboo in Arab politics.

The conviction of his Hashemite destiny, together with some vital natural optimism, carried Hussein through over thirty years’ more trials: through war against his own bitter Palestinian subjects in 1970; the precarious balancing act of the 1973 October war (in which he committed an armored brigade to support Syria); the Camp David conference in which Egypt made a separate peace with Israel; the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization; and the 1991 Gulf War in which the King notoriously backed Saddam Hussein.2

After the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987 and the upsurge of Palestinian resistance within the occupied territories, Hussein started to disengage from the West Bank, relinquishing representation of the Palestinian people to the PLO. Six years later, in 1993, Israel and the PLO signed a peace accord in Oslo, and the following autumn Jordan and Israel concluded their own treaty. This secured Hussein’s kingdom from extremists on either side eager to convert Jordan into an alternative Palestinian homeland, and it opened the way—Hussein believed—to a more trusting future. For the King, it was the zenith of his career, a “warm peace” realized in friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Then everything crumbled. Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing zealot at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, making way for the hard-line Benjamin Netanyahu, and the hoped-for West Bank accord faded away as Hussein’s own health declined. He died in 1999 in a hospital bed in Amman, aged sixty-three, with his fourth wife beside him. But his legacy, however fragile, was a workable Jordanian state, less harsh than its neighbors, whose people—almost half Palestinian—were to prove enterprising and flexible in a growing economy.

On the political context of this extraordinary life, Avi Shlaim claims that it is the historian’s duty not only to record but to evaluate. He has said elsewhere: “My view is that the historian is a judge, and above all a hanging judge.”3 In Lion of Jordan, he throws down his challenge at the outset:

My own view is that the Balfour Declaration [the 1917 British statement favoring a Jewish home in Palestine] was one of the worst mistakes in British foreign policy in the first half of the twentieth century. It involved a monumental injustice to the Palestine Arabs and sowed the seeds of a never-ending conflict in the Middle East.

Whether this pronouncement is seen as admirably candid or needlessly provocative, the next seven hundred–odd pages are a powerful, richly researched history, buttressed by a wide range of invaluable interviews. It makes for compulsive but somber reading. Shlaim’s access to the papers of Yaacov Herzog (he calls them “a real treasure trove”) inaugurates a fascinating narrative of the King’s (or his adviser Zaid Rifa’i’s) secret meetings with Israeli officials, including Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, Moshe Dayan, Abba Eban, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, and Yitzhak Shamir. He describes fifty-five such meetings in all (and there were probably more). They took place in the privacy of a Jewish doctor’s house in London, or on a ship in the Aqaba Bay, or in the solitude of the Araba desert south of the Dead Sea. For Hussein they were a safety valve and a wishful avenue of hope.

The initial meetings have been documented previously (in Michael Bar- Zohar’s biography of Herzog) but not in this nuanced and human detail. Some of these conclaves were bafflingly insubstantial. But later, after the loss of the West Bank in 1967, the repeated failure to trade land for peace in accordance with UN Resolution 242, the cornerstone of most negotiations, they became grimly predictable. The PLO, of course, was its own worst enemy, and often, in Shlaim’s delicate phrasing, “put doctrinal purity above practical progress.” But for Shlaim the greater burden of blame falls elsewhere:

  1. 1

    Peter John Snow, Hussein: A Biography (Barrie and Jenkins, 1972); James Lunt, Hussein of Jordan: Searching for a Just and Lasting Peace (William Morrow, 1989); Roland Dallas, King Hussein: A Life on the Edge (London: Profile, 1998).

  2. 2

    Shlaim recalls, however, that during the 1980–1988 Iran–Iraq war, “America and Britain used Hussein and his generals to arm Saddam Hussein covertly.” Jordan, he writes, “was the perfect front for covert American operations, whether they involved intelligence sharing or the supply of arms.” The CIA station in Amman “played a part in promoting these clandestine shipments to Baghdad.”

  3. 3

    Interview with Elliott Colla in Middle East Report, May 10, 2002.

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