AMMAN, Jordan — Forty-three years ago, a Palestinian enraged by reports that Jordan's King Abdullah was meeting secretly with Israeli leaders shot the elderly Hashemite king dead as he entered Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque to pray. Standing at Abdullah's side when the gunfire erupted was his 15-year-old grandson, Hussein.
On Monday, Hussein--now the Middle East's longest-ruling leader--intends to openly endorse his grandfather's conviction that the Arabs must come to terms with the Jewish state. For the first time, he will meet publicly with Yitzhak Rabin, joining the Israeli prime minister for talks with President Clinton at the White House.
Hussein and Rabin, who are thought to have met secretly several times over the tumultuous years during which they have served their nations, are expected to sign agreements laying the groundwork for a formal peace treaty between Israel and Jordan. They may even sign a declaration of non-belligerency, which would end the official state of war between the two nations but fall short of a treaty. They also intend to jointly address Congress, and to attend a White House state dinner.
For Israelis and Arabs, their appearances together will hold little of the drama that marked Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977, or Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat's handshake with Rabin on the White House lawn last September.
For most Israelis, their government's state of war with Jordan has been theoretical since the king lost the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem to Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Israeli newspapers have reported for years on the "secret" meetings between the king and a parade of prime ministers, and on quiet agreements to secure the border between the two nations and share scarce water resources.
And for most Jordanians, the shock of seeing their king meeting with Rabin pales in comparison to seeing Arafat shake Rabin's hand. The shock also has been eased in advance by the lengthy negotiations Jordan and Israel have publicly engaged in since an October, 1991, peace conference in Madrid.
"Yasser Arafat acted as a shock absorber for the king," said Speaker of Parliament Taher Masri in an interview before leaving with Hussein for Washington on Friday. "People feel we have no alternative but to make peace with the Israelis now that the Palestinians are making peace with them. They are not happy; they are not sad. They are almost passive."
But Monday's meeting with Rabin is the culmination of a personal journey for Hussein that has led him through civil war, coup attempts, assassination plots, Arab-Israeli wars and the vagaries of Arab politics for more than four decades. It is another gamble by a king who has developed acute instincts for sensing the mood of his volatile and often divided nation.
"We are moving close to completing a very dear objective," Hussein said Wednesday after meeting with Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Hussein spoke shortly before Christopher flew by helicopter to the Dead Sea to preside over another first--Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres crossing the border to discuss trilateral economic cooperation with Christopher and Jordanian Prime Minister Abdul Salam Majali.
"I am proud of the reaction of the overwhelming majority of people in this country" to his decision to step up contacts with the Israelis, Hussein told reporters.
There are still worries among the king's advisers about the risk Hussein is taking in accelerating talks with Israel. Syria has criticized the move, as has a coalition of Islamic fundamentalists and Arab nationalist groups within Jordan. Security forces have stepped up surveillance of groups considered potential troublemakers.
The king decided to make his move now, according to senior Jordanian officials and Western diplomats, because he feared that Israel and the PLO were prepared to cut Jordan out of any arrangements for the future of the West Bank and Gaza, and he believes that Syria stands on the verge of making peace with Israel.
"What did the king stand to gain by waiting for Syria to go first?" one Western diplomat asked. "Rightly or wrongly, he was convinced that (Syrian President Hafez) Assad was going to deal, and if Israel achieved peace with Syria, Jordan would have no leverage at all in its negotiations."
Hussein also is anxious for U.S. aid to ease Jordan's economic crisis and its crushing debt burden.
Jordanians are also hoping Washington will pressure Arab Gulf states, still angry with the king for his support of Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, to resume aid to the kingdom, which has been swamped by Palestinian refugees from Kuwait and suffers high unemployment.
"We need to see the Americans deliver on their promises, and soon--not in 1995 or 1996, but now," a senior palace official said. "People need to see that there are results coming from the concessions that Jordan is making."