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.
A.S.: In November 1966 Israel carried out the raid against the West Bank village of Samu. Did you feel betrayed by Israel?
K.H.: Yes, I did. In fact that happened on my birthday. One of my very close friends, an air force pilot, was shot down on his way out of that engagement. It really created a devastating effect in Jordan itself. The action that led to the Israeli attack was not something that Jordan condoned or sponsored or supported in any form or way. I couldn’t figure out if a small irrigation ditch or pipe in Israel was blown up—assuming it was, which I didn’t necessarily know for sure—why the reaction in this way? Was there any balance between the two? I felt we needed to figure out a way of dealing with the threats in a different way, in a joint way. So the Israeli attack was a shock and it was not a very pleasant birthday present.
A.S.: You have already talked about your predicament during the crisis of May/June 1967. The Israelis always stress that they sent you a message to keep out and then you would not be harmed. Presumably you received this message but you chose to ignore it.
K.H.: I did receive the message but it was too late in any event. I had already handed over the command of the army to the unified Arab command. There was a unified Arab command with an Egyptian general in army headquarters in charge of the Jordanian armed forces as a part of the defense effort. The Syrians were not ready, the Iraqis were far away; eventually they moved, even before the Syrians, and already the first wave had gone in from Jordan into Israel when the UN general called to say that there is a message to keep out of it. I said: “Tell him it’s too late.” I don’t know that the message made any difference because at that time I had these options: either join the Arabs, or Jordan would have torn itself apart. A clash between Palestinians and Jordanians might have led to Jordan’s destruction and left the very clear possibility of an Israeli takeover of at least the West Bank and Jerusalem. We did the best we could in the hope that somebody would stop this madness before it developed any further and help us out.
A.S.: What did you do to recover the West Bank?
K.H.: I met with Nasser after the war immediately and we met at the Arab League summit at Khartoum later. And at Khartoum I fought very much against the famous three nos [no recognition, no negotiation, and no peace with Israel]. But the atmosphere there developed into one where all the people who used to support Nasser, who never criticized him on anything, now [following the Arab defeat] turned on him and turned on him in such a vicious way that I found myself morally unable to continue to take any stand but to come closer to him and defend him and accuse them of responsibility for some of the things that happened. That was the first collision I had with many of my friends in the Arab world. But then we talked about the need for a resolution and the need for a peaceful solution to the problem. And Nasser’s approach was: “I feel responsible. We lost the West Bank and Gaza, and that comes first. I am not going to ask for any withdrawal from the Suez Canal. It can stay closed forever until such time as the issue of the West Bank and of Gaza is resolved. So go and speak of that and seek a comprehensive solution to the problem and a comprehensive peace and go and do anything you can short of signing a separate peace.” And I said that in any event I was not considering signing a separate peace because we wanted to resolve this problem in a comprehensive fashion. So we went to America and our negotiations with the Americans started and with all the members of the Security Council.
A.S.: You had a meeting in May 1968 in London with Abba Eban and Yaakov Herzog. What was said?
K.H.: I think there was one immediately after the adoption of UN Resolution 242 in November 1967, on my way back from New York—I have to go back to my notes and really find out the dates.3 What was said then didn’t give me very much encouragement because the Israeli attitude was different from what we had expected. We were told by the Americans that we will have to accept 242 as is because the Israelis accepted it. It is a question of negotiating the implementation of 242. But unfortunately the Israelis withdrew from that position of negotiating withdrawal on all fronts.
A.S.: In September 1968 you had a meeting with Abba Eban, Yigal Allon, and Yaakov Herzog. Was this your first meeting with Allon? Was this the first time he presented to you the Allon plan, and what was the reaction?
K.H.: I don’t think it was on the first meeting that he presented his plan. But again, we were trying to figure how to get out of that situation [i.e., Israel’s occupation of the West Bank after the 1967 war], particularly as there was a lot of violence. We were constantly under attack. The Fedayeen movement of Palestinian guerrillas started and people were disenchanted with the regular armies in the region as a whole and turned to that approach. I tried my best to control this movement. On the one hand, I believed that people have a right to resist occupation. But on the other hand, we had a very turbulent internal situation, we had continuous reprisals and fire fights on the long front from the Dead Sea to the northernmost part. And we were hit by both sides.
A.S.: The number of Israeli participants seemed to increase with every meeting because there was another meeting in March 1970, attended by Eban, Herzog, Moshe Dayan, and the Israeli chief of staff Chaim Bar-Lev. This meeting was in Aqaba. Do you remember that meeting and what was on the agenda?
K.H.: I have all the details back at home and I will be more than happy to check them. The main point was that the Israelis considered that they had to retaliate against all actions from Jordan. I kept saying that these actions were by people resisting occupation and that it didn’t necessarily mean that Jordan was fighting. Jordan was deployed on the longest border and its army was trying its best to see what could be done. We were having our own problems but that was our responsibility. I was very worried about the increase of what was almost perpetual fighting until the Egyptians started the so-called War of Attrition and that eased the pressure on Jordan a little bit.
A.S.: The next landmark is Black September in 1970 when the PLO challenged your regime. How significant was Israel’s help during that crisis?
K.H.: The main help lay in the fact that Israel did not take advantage of the moment. We were in the fight which I believe was a turning point in the life of Jordan. We didn’t want it. We tried our very best to avert the deterioration [of the situation]. But the Palestinian resistance gained strength. They had moved from the Jordan Valley into the towns. What provoked the Israelis were [Palestinian] rockets that were run to a timer from behind our forces that would go off and our forces would be hit [in retaliation by the Israelis]. We had thousands of incidents of Palestinians breaking the law, of attacking people. It was a very unruly state of affairs in the country and I continued to try to restore order. I went to Egypt. I called on the Arabs to help in any way they could, particularly as some of them were sponsoring some of these movements in some form or another, but without much success. And toward the end I felt I was losing control. The army began to rebel. I had to spend most of my time running from one unit to an-other. I think that the gamble was probably that the army would fracture along Palestinian-Jordanian lines. That never happened, thank God.
A.S.: You met with Golda Meir after the events of Black September. Was this the first meeting in Tel Aviv and can you tell me anything about it?
K.H.: A cordial meeting, the first time since a long time had passed. I don’t think the meeting was held in Tel Aviv. It might have been in the south, but later on I did go to Tel Aviv.
A.S.: What was the purpose of this meeting?
K.H.: In 1970 we came up in Jordan with three possible solutions to the Palestinian problem: [a return to the pre-1967] status quo, or there could be a federation called the United Arab Kingdom, or an independent Palestinian state. So it was in this context that we had that meeting but she was totally opposed to these ideas at that time.
A.S.: Yigal Allon suggested a territorial compromise, dividing the West Bank between Israel and Jordan. What was your reaction?
K.H.: This was totally rejected. And in point of fact, in the subsequent period of negotiations, I was offered the return of something like 90-plus percent of the territory, 98 percent even, excluding Jerusalem, but I couldn’t accept. As far as I was concerned, it had to be every single inch that I was responsible for. This was against the background of what happened in 1948 when the whole West Bank was saved by Jordan, including the old city of Jerusalem but with the loss of Lydda and Ramleh. Yet my grandfather eventually paid with his life for his attempts for peace. If it were to be my responsibility, I had to return everything, not personally to me, but to be placed under international auspices for the people to determine what their future ought to be. We were perfectly happy with that. But I could not compromise. And so this deadlock repeated itself time and time and time again throughout the many years until 1990.
A.S.: The Israelis kept talking about the Jordanian option between 1967 and 1973. From your perspective, was there ever a Jordanian option?
K.H.: I never thought that there was a Jordanian option. The Palestinians can settle in Jordan. They could, as far as I am concerned, be citizens of Jordan, and I believe that this is our greatest contribution toward a peaceful solution because physically it can’t be any other way, but psychologically there was always a choice. The Palestinians had a choice: those who wanted to could stay in Jordan and begin their lives again. But there are also many Jordanians who are worse off than the Palestinians in terms of the standard of living, in terms of their needs, and their ability to survive. So Jordan was not a vacant lot.
Jordan had done more than many others by taking these people, treating them as Jordanians, giving them chances and opportunities they never had anywhere else, not keeping them in camps. And that was one of the worst images I ever had of the whole Arab approach, practically keeping them in camps surrounded by barbed wire, unable to work, unable to partake, unable to have a nationality, unable to do anything. But that didn’t mean Jordan has to cease to exist as a result of doing that in any form or way. And any solution would have to have Palestinian rights on Palestinian soil. Eventually the Palestinians decided they wanted to move on their own. This absolved us of any further responsibility other than looking after our own damaged population with regard to Israel and peace. But at the same time we continued to work for a comprehensive peace in the area as best we could, starting with the Madrid conference in 1991.
A.S.: Just before the outbreak of the October War you had a meeting with Golda Meir and it was reported in Israel that you warned her in general terms about an Arab attack. Can you throw any light on that warning?
K.H.: I can only say that, as far as I was concerned, I was caught completely off guard. I was riding a motorbike with my late wife behind me in the suburbs of Amman when a security car behind started flashing us to stop and then I was told that a war had started. I had no idea that anything of that nature would happen and certainly not at that time. I had met with Anwar Sadat and Hafez al-Assad in Cairo shortly before the outbreak of war. We didn’t have relations with either of them at the time. Egypt restored relations [with us] and Assad didn’t until the day before the war, if I am not mistaken. He wanted the Fedayeen to be permitted back into Jordan and I refused that. At the same time we were told that [the Syrians] were afraid of an Israeli attack through Jordan and I said that if that ever happened, we will fight it. We are not going to leave our territory open for anyone. So they seemed satisfied with that and I returned to Jordan and a few days later we had the October War. We were totally excluded from any knowledge of what the plan was.
A.S.: Ezer Weizman said you made two mistakes: one was in joining in the June ’67 war and the other in not joining in the October ’73 war.
K.H.: I never had the chance to speak to him about that. He is a very, very dear friend and I have said several times I have a great deal of respect for him. We have so many common interests, have always had in our lives.
Maybe people will view 1967 as a mistake but again the Israeli impression was that we did it because we were going to throw them in the sea. That is totally untrue. We went to war hoping that it would not happen until the last possible moment, and that if it did start, it would soon be stopped. But we knew full well what the consequences were. The West Bank was going to be lost one way or the other. We either stuck to our word and our commitment to help others or we would have had an internal upheaval that would have torn the country apart and called Israel to move in. That was the choice, and we made our choice not under any illusion that the results would be different.
In 1973 I wasn’t a part of it and, in any event, I had embarked on a course of trying to achieve peace and I could not be double-faced about it even if they had told me about the plan to go to war. Thank God I wasn’t told anyway.
A.S.: In the period from 1974 until 1976 you had about six meetings with Israeli leaders. Can you cast your mind back to that period and throw some light on these meetings?
K.H.: Yitzhak Rabin [who had succeeded Golda Meir as prime minister after the October War] was very rigid—very polite, very cordial, but very rigid, and impossible to alter. But let me come back to the very recent past when we first met in Aqaba with Rabin, [after] having started the peace process. He said, “You were very stubborn” and I said, “Yes I was because I could not give an inch of Palestinian territory or an iota of Palestinian rights. But now that the Palestini-ans have been able to speak for themselves and they have assumed their responsibilities, we can do business.” This really sums up the whole dilemma. I remember in my last meeting with Rabin, in his first government, he said, “Well, there is nothing that can be done, wait for ten years, maybe things will change on the ground.” I said, “Well, too bad.” We agreed to do what we could to help the Palestinians on the humanitarian level, but I refused to go back on 242. He said in that case just leave it and we left it at that. So we could not get anywhere.
A.S.: After the Likud came to power in May 1977, did you sense an abrupt reversal of Israel’s attitude toward Jordan?
K.H.: I saw my friend Moshe Dayan, who had become the foreign minister of the Likud, here in London. His attitude was even harder than it had been earlier and that was the end of that. We never had any contacts for a long period.
A.S.: Did Anwar Sadat consult you before his trip to Jerusalem in 1977?
K.H.: Not at all. Or about his contacts or about anything. I did tell him when I saw him that I had been in touch with our neighbors. I wondered whether he was going to ask me about these contacts. But he said that he wanted to assume responsibility only for his own relations with Israel.
A.S.: And when Sadat eventually concluded the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978, what was your reaction?
K.H.: I was very angry. I really was utterly upset about it. I will tell you why. Before he went on this venture, we had been working with President Carter on the idea of a summit meeting in Geneva with all the countries concerned together with the Americans and Soviets. I had gone to Egypt and from there Sadat asked me to go to Damascus and see whether I could persuade Assad to join. Assad was his usual self. He was a little bit difficult and hardly responded. I had a feeling that Assad might have driven Sadat to move [on his own] the way he did. Sadat’s move shocked me, especially against a background of Nasser saying that he won’t move on his own with Israel until he could make up for the damage he caused Jordan in that unrealistic and terrible war. So Sadat was the exact opposite, but there we are.
Yet I went and saw him. I said fine. And he went to Washington and I called him there. By that time I had heard that things were not going all that well and I said, “Good luck and keep a tough position, if you can.” And then I was on my way back and as we passed through Spain, the Camp David Accords were signed. So we were never a part of it in Jordan, and the Camp David Accords imposed on us in Jordan a role that we had not been consulted about, of essentially providing security in the West Bank, with joint patrols and this and that and the other but without even having a say in it. And that is where we couldn’t take it.
A.S.: What went wrong after you and Shimon Peres reached the so-called London Agreement in April 1987?
K.H.: Shimon Peres and I met here in London and we tried to involve the Palestinians in the search for a settlement with us. We reached an agreement on an international conference and we initialed it. Peres came as foreign minister in a national unity government headed by Yitzhak Shamir. The London Agreement floundered on two levels, the American and the Israeli. Peres told me that he would go back home with the agreement we worked out and he would send it immediately to George Shultz, and within forty-eight hours it would come back as an American plan. Peres also said that “the American plan” would be accepted by Israel, and I promised it would be accepted by Jordan. So he left.
Two weeks later nothing had happened. And then a letter was sent by Shultz to Yitzhak Shamir, the Israeli prime minister at the time, telling him that this is the agreement reached between Peres and me, and asking Shamir for his views. And of course Shamir took a negative stand against the London Agreement and the whole thing fell apart. But as far as I was concerned, Peres was the Israeli interlocutor. I talked with him. I agreed with him on something and he couldn’t deliver.
A.S.: Let us move on to the Gulf crisis of 1990. Did you have any contact with the Israeli government and with Prime Minister Shamir during the crisis, before the war?
K.H.: Just before the war. We had at that time given up. We were utterly frustrated, utterly angry. It happened during my watch. I was heading the Ittihad al-Arabi, the Arab Union, at the time. And then suddenly out of the blue came this Iraqi attack on Kuwait. I felt that it was my duty to do whatever I could to see if we could resolve this problem within the Arab context. I wanted to get a definite Iraqi commitment of withdrawal from Kuwait. But I was not given a chance to mediate. The Arab League took a hard line. And then there was Iraq’s attitude. You couldn’t budge them right until my last meeting with Saddam Hussein. Yasser Arafat was there and the president of South Yemen and we argued and argued. No way. Eventually we managed to get the so-called guests [the Western hostages] out of Iraq. That is the only positive thing that came out of the meeting.
At the airport, as I was leaving, Saddam Hussein said to me: “Look, Abu Abdullah, don’t worry. The whole world is against us but God is with us, and we are going to win.” I said, “This is beyond my ability to comprehend or to deal with. I leave very saddened and very distressed and I know that the results as they appear to me are going to be disastrous everywhere. I will go back home. But if there is anything further I can do, then you know how to get in touch with me.” He never did and the war broke out.
When I got back we mobilized and the Americans had taken the attitude that you are either with us or against us, and there was no other way. Somehow it turned out that our position had been undermined in the Arab world. In the preceding year and a half, there were rumors of Jordan conspiring with Iraq. Totally unfounded. We had never done so and if we had, we would have done something much better than that. That wouldn’t have been the case. It is against our nature. All we were trying to do is to avert the human disaster, the economic disaster, the breaking of bones that until now we [still] can’t get repaired in the region. It will take a long time to ever get [what was damaged] back in shape. And all we wanted was a chance to work out an Arab solution to the crisis. If we had been given that chance and Iraq had proved that we couldn’t succeed, we probably would have been among the first troops to enter Iraq because it was made very, very clear at all summits that if any Arab country used military force against another, it would need to be faced by all of us. It was in direct contradiction to that that they acted. But we weren’t given the chance.
However, the pressure built up on us in such a way that we were totally isolated, but we mobilized, and that was another one of the best moments I have ever seen in Jordan. Our people came together and we of course received 400,000 refugees, the bidduns who had no rights, from Kuwait, and from the Gulf, on top of all the other problems we had to cope with. We were encircled, we mobilized almost a quarter of a million Jordanians and through that we controlled the situation, in a way; and we made it very clear to the Iraqis, we spoke to the Israelis, we spoke to everybody else: we may be small, but anybody who attacks us will suffer a lot of damage. We are not saying we are invincible, we are not. But neither can our land or our air be used by [either of] them. We had our forces deployed facing Iraq and facing Israel and facing north and south.
At that time, just before the [Gulf] war there was a suggestion of a meeting with the prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir, and we met here in London. Shamir brought with him Ehud Barak, the IDF chief of staff. Shamir said to me, “Look, I have a dilemma. In 1973 our people were not vigilant enough and the Arab attack came in and a lot of damage occurred. Now we see that you have your troops mobilized and my generals are calling for me to do the same and to have our troops facing yours. There isn’t much distance in the Jordan Valley and it would be totally irresponsible, they say, if I did not take the same measures.”
So I said, “Prime Minister, you are perfectly within your rights to take the same measures if you feel like it, but let me suggest that if that happens then the possibility of an accidental war developing between us is very real.” He said, “Well, what is your position?” I said, “My position is purely defensive.” I made it very clear that we will try to stop anyone who transgresses against Jordan from any direction. He said, “Do I have your word?” I said, “Yes, you have my word.” He said, “That is good enough for me and I will prevent our people from moving anywhere.” And he did. And that was one of the events I will always remember. That he recognized that my word was good enough and this is the way people deal with each other.
A.S.: In June 1992 the Labour Party won the election and Yitzhak Rabin became prime minister a second time. When were your contacts renewed with him and through what channel?
K.H.: Through direct means, through the help of some friends. We established a way of being able to communicate directly. In fact we had a Jordanian-Israeli agenda worked out but we held back until the Palestinians moved. The Oslo Agreement came out of the blue. Yasser Arafat had told me that he had been in touch with Shimon Peres but suddenly it came out. At one point I was rather upset again. Why not coordinate? How can you work that way? But then I decided, that’s what the Palestinians wanted always and the only thing I could do was to support them.
And that freed us so we immediately began our talks. We had a meeting here in London and I asked Rabin if he was ready to move, and he said he was, so we said fine, and we began a process of working on what turned out to be the Washington Declaration [which ended the state of war between Israel and Jordan]. In the meantime, Peres came to Amman and went back, and despite our prior commitment on both sides to keep it quiet until it was appropriate to announce it, it was leaked. So I continued with Rabin.
A.S.: Why did you insist on secrecy?
K.H.: We did not announce peace contacts publicly all through the past because of a mutual agreement. At first we were so far apart, there was no benefit from announcing these meetings. They enabled us to get to know each other. They enabled us to examine the possibilities of positions every now and then to see if there is any chance for progress. They certainly changed the atmosphere, but it was a mutual agreement from the word go that we keep them quiet until we had something of substance.
A.S.: What was the background to the Washington Declaration of July 1994?
K.H.: I was not against a public meeting with Rabin; that’s the way people do business, no other way. And we prepared the document, formally ending the state of war between Israel and Jordan. I wanted the first meeting to be held in Wadi Araba so that Rabin would get esteem. I planned to invite him to come and sign what turned out to be the Washington Declaration. At that point President Clinton invited us to the White House. Both Rabin and I felt the Americans had been our partners in trying to get somewhere for so long that we could not turn down their invitation. So we accepted. And we went with the paper already agreed to its last detail and we did not show it to anyone and we gave it to the President’s office after the last newspaper came out.
A.S.: Shimon Peres has claimed the credit for the breakthrough with Jordan which produced the Washington Declaration.
K.H.: He had nothing to do with it. He had no knowledge of it. And he was very upset about that unfortunately. And he took it in the wrong way.
A.S.: And next was the actual peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. Who negotiated the peace treaty?
K.H.: Essentially Rabin and us.
A.S.: And did you feel you got a fair deal?
K.H.: I felt we did, yes. I think so, we had a unique relationship. I felt he placed himself in my position many times. I placed myself in his position. We did not try to score points off each other. We tried to work something that is workable, that is acceptable to both our people, something that was balanced, something that was reasonable. And that’s the approach we had and we managed to get that.
A.S.: How do you evaluate the progress of the peace process be-tween Israel and Jordan in the year between the signature of the treaty and the assassination of Rabin in November 1995?
K.H.: I think it was rapid, promising, and very satisfying, at that period of time. It was preparing the ground for a lot that would happen later. But certainly the last time I met Rabin was at the economic summit in Amman. It was a landmark event: we tried to present to the world the two countries in a state of peace, and hopefully as taking a step toward comprehensive peace in the area. To tell the world: “Come and be our partners and benefit with us in the dividends of peace.” A few days later we lost it.
A.S.: Was it your intention that the peace between Jordan and Israel would be a warm peace unlike the cold peace between Israel and Egypt?
K.H.: I can’t understand the term cold peace. I don’t understand what it means. You either have a war or you have a state of no war and no peace or you have peace. Peace is by its very nature a resolution of all the problems. It is the tearing down of barriers between people. It is people coming together, coming to know each other. There were so many instances, like the children of martyrs on both sides embracing in Wadi Araba. We saw soldiers who fought each other coming together and exchanging reminiscences about the impossible conditions they had before in a totally different atmosphere. People began to know each other, to have a feeling that their worries were the same. People started meeting and doing business together and that is peace. What other peace has a meaning? It is not between governments, it is between people. Suddenly they realized they have the same worries, they have the same concerns, they have suffered the same way, there is something that they can both put into creating a relationship that would be of benefit for everybody.
A.S.: After Rabin’s assassination what kind of relationship did you have with Shimon Peres and what is your evaluation of Peres as prime minister?
K.H.: The fact that he did not like the peace treaty, I suppose, alienated him to a degree.4 I don’t think he was very happy with that and I am sorry about it because I know he has served his country. Peres has always been a believer in peace, and he has so many thoughts and ideas for progress in every field and area and he would never cease to present them. But the relationship was different and it cooled down constantly.
A.S.: When Binyamin Netanyahu was elected prime minister in 1996, did you think that heralded the end of the peace process in the Middle East?
K.H.: I did not necessarily think that. I thought that the peace process was irreversible and I still hope it is. I remember talking with Rabin once about the approaching elections and he said, “When the peace treaty with Jordan passed through the Knesset, it was approved by an overwhelming majority. We have never had such a sweeping majority on any other issue. And so it wasn’t a peace between Jordan and Labour; it was a peace between Jordan and the whole people of Israel.” I respected that and that is why I did not interfere in the Israeli elections in any form or way. And I believe that the national consensus in support of peace will continue. But until now obviously we have been moving very slowly, and we are facing a different atmosphere from the one that existed before.
A.S.: At the Washington Summit in late September 1996 you were reported to have spoken very sternly to Netanyahu. What did you say to him?
K.H.: It was probably leaked, not by me, but the leak was essentially correct. I spoke of the arrogance of power, I spoke of the need to treat people equally, I spoke of the need to make progress. I spoke about my concerns and my worries and they were accurately reported.
A.S.: And what was Netanyahu’s response?
K.H.: He didn’t say anything, but toward the end, as we were leaving, he said, “I am determined to surprise you.”
A.S.: Finally, you have been dealing with Israel for over forty years. Do you have a concluding comment on Israel as a neighbor?
K.H.: I believe that there is so much potential for benefits that would result from our coming together. The descendants of the children of Abraham in that region had such an impact on the world and on mankind. There is so much that we achieved together in the past in terms of history, in Spain and elsewhere, and within the region itself. And I think there is so much that could be achieved and could be done. The talents and abilities of peoples coming together should be channeled to do something worthwhile and worthy of them. Now against that, we have the few, but unfortunately effective, people who are against this vision and against this dream on either side of the Arab-Israeli divide. I felt that the divide had changed. It wasn’t Israel and Jordan. It was those who believed in peace, and believed in the future, and those who are opposed to it. So we have opponents here and there.
But now, I feel I am in a dilemma. I really feel as responsible to Israelis as I feel to Jordanians. I have had many contacts with Israelis, I have felt the warmth of people, I have felt they are yearning for the same things that our people are yearning for. And I don’t know, we are still waiting for positive developments. They haven’t happened. How far can I keep quiet? When do I have to speak out to Israelis and Jordanians, to everyone and to share with them my fears and anxieties regarding our mutual future? I don’t think one can remain the way we are indefinitely; but I hope somehow that there will be a breakthrough before long and we can start again. That is where we are at the moment.
July 15, 1999
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). ↩
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. ↩
Resolution 242 was passed by the UN Security Council on November 22, 1967, and called in part for “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and “respect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area .” ↩
It is unlikely that King Hussein intended to imply that Shimon Peres did not like the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. What the King probably meant to suggest was that Rabin’s exclusions of Peres from the negotiations that led to the treaty had alienated Peres. ↩