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The World : The Cautious King's Bold Move: Peace With Israel

July 31, 1994|Yossi Melman | Yossi Melman, an Israeli journalist, is the co-author of "Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance" (Hyperion)

ANN ARBOR, MICH. — A tale is told of the young King Hussein asking one of his elderly Bedouin advisers: "Tell me, what is the secret to living a long life?"

"It is simple, your majesty," the man replied, "never set on a journey through the desert, unless you are certain your camel can bear its burden."

As the world's longest surviving leader, the Jordanian monarch appears to have heeded whatever good advice he heard. He has masterfully maintained a tightrope walk between stronger neighbors.

The key to his remaining on the throne for more than 41 years, ruling over a small, poor, mainly desert country, has been Hussein's ability to maneuver politically and militarily among the conflicting interests of Israel, the Palestinians, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria. At the same time, he has managed to remain staunchly pro-British and pro-American. He has also been particularly cautious about his peace negotiations with Israel. Hussein is well aware of the risks of peace making--he witnessed the 1951 assassination of his grandfather, King Abdullah, by a Palestinian extremist angered by that king's readiness to negotiate peace with Israel.

However, by meeting last week at the White House with Premier Yitzhak Rabin and declaring, in his address to Congress, "the state of war between Israel and Jordan is over," Hussein abandoned his traditional noncommittal stance.

Hussein's bold move is even more dramatically illuminated by the recent wave of terrorism--inspired most probably by Iran and executed by Muslim fundamentalists who oppose the peace. The bombs that killed 100 people in Buenos Aires, two-dozen aboard a Panamanian airliner, failed in Bangkok and destroyed the Israeli embassy in London, were directed against Israeli and Jewish targets. However, they can soon turn against the king and his regime.

During the first decade of his rule, Hussein was fascinated by Arab nationalism as preached by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. But the association brought calamity upon the king and his country. In 1967, carried away by the Egyptian leader's promises of an easy victory, Hussein ignored Israeli pleas to stay out of the growing crisis. The king instructed his armed forces to join the Egyptian and the Syrian armies and attacked Israel in the Six-Day War. This cost him dearly: Jordan lost the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In the 27 years since, the king and his advisers realized time and again that Israel could be a pillar of a geostrategic support for Jordan. Hussein and his top officials have more "Israeli hours" than any other Arab ruler--including the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the first Arab statesman to sign a peace treaty with Israel, 15 years ago.

The 30 years of clandestine diplomacy enabled the two countries to cooperate on matters of health, agriculture, education, commerce and environment. Moreover they created a "de facto" peace, keeping their shared 200-mile border quiet. Yet the secret meetings couldn't produce a formal treaty. Jordan demanded that all of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem should be returned to its control. Israel refused.

Regardless, the most important field of cooperation between the two countries was intelligence and defense. Israeli and Jordanian intelligence experts have traded information about Palestinian groups--which both sides perceive as a security threat. Israeli intelligence also occasionally tipped the king about plots against him, devised by his Syrian, Saudi and Palestinian enemies.

The most visible Israeli contribution to the existence and stability of Jordan was in 1970. Led by the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinians, who make up more than 50% of Jordan's 4.5-million population, rebelled against Hussein. Yasser Arafat's guerrillas hoped to turn Jordan into a springboard in their battle against Israel. At the same time, President Hafez Assad, who has never abandoned his claims of "Greater Syria"--including Jordan--invaded in the north.

Israel mobilized its forces and threatened to intervene in the war--against the Palestinian-Syrian coalition. The ultimatum worked. The Syrians withdrew and the PLO was expelled to Lebanon. Hussein again survived.

But the PLO and, more significantly, Abu Nidal, the renegade Palestinian terrorist acting as the tool of Syrian intelligence, began a campaign of terror against Jordanian leaders. They made several assassination attempts against the king.

Hussein was mindful of his debt to Israel. He did not participate in the 1973 Yom Kippur War--and so had no chance to secure parts of the West Bank. Israel succumbed to Egyptian and Syrian military pressures and began withdrawing from occupied Sinai and the Golan Heights.

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