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 is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.