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King Hussein : Still Optimistic That Peace Is Inevitable in Middle East

June 16, 1996|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam" (Touchstone Books/Simon & Shuster), covers global issues for The Times

WASHINGTON — King Hussein bin Talal is the Middle East's leading optimist. Although the Middle East has been the world's most volatile region during the past half century--with five Arab-Israeli wars, two Gulf wars and many border conflicts, civil wars and revolutions--the Jordanian leader has consistently believed real peace with Israel was not only possible but inevitable.

He has often defied his Arab brothers to get it. The king's secret meetings with an array of Israeli leaders before the current peace process was launched in 1991 were open secrets. And just 21 months after he signed a formal peace treaty, Jordan now has far broader ties to Israel than any Arab state.

While other partners in the peace process have died for their boldness, King Hussein is one of the region's true survivors. In August, he will mark 44 years on the Hashemite throne, a period of transformation from a predominantly tribal and nomadic society to a modern state. Jordan now has among the highest literacy and education levels in the developing world.

He is also politically daring. After the protests and unrest in the late 1980s that led to clampdowns elsewhere in the region, the king opted instead to open up Jordan's political system. It has since held two rounds of free multiparty elections for Parliament and written a new national charter that establishes the framework for democracy. Jordan's political experiment, while still young and fragile, is the boldest transformation in a region that has persistently held out against reform. Islamist forces, which make up the largest single bloc in Parliament, charge that the king has not gone far enough in implementing democracy and that he still tightly controls the reins of power.

Beyond politics, the king has always been one of the region's more colorful leaders. Affectionately known among diplomats and journalists as the PLK, or "plucky little king," the monarch is an avid sportsman who likes everything from karate to fencing and race-car driving to skiing. He is also a pilot who flies his entourage around the kingdom, as well as on regular trips abroad--whatever the weather, as one of his staff nervously noted when he flew into foggy New York to receive an honorary doctorate of law from New York University last week.

By four successive wives--a Jordanian, a Brit, a Palestinian and an American--the king has 11 children, who range in age from 10 to 40 years old, plus an adopted daughter. His current wife, Queen Noor, is American-born Lisa Halaby. While in the United States, he also attended one of his children's graduation from middle school in Boston.

On the eve of the pivotal Arab summit in Cairo next Friday, King Hussein came for extensive talks at the White House, State Department and Pentagon on Israel's new leadership, the peace process, Iraq, terrorism and regional security.

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Question: What do you expect to come out of the Arab summit next week? Does the Arab world have either the resources or the clout to be able to come up with something to convince the new prime minister of Israel to move forward, not just to enact what has been agreed on so far, but to take the other major steps that will bring this historic [peace] process to a close?

Answer: I hope that the Arab summit, which will be the first after many, many years, will bring about reconciliation between those who represent the Arab nation. Complementality is the only way left to us to bring about progress in our entire region.

As far as the Israeli dimension of the problem is concerned, I don't believe the Arab summit should, beyond reviewing developments, do anything but stress our total commitment to all that we have achieved so far and our hope that progress will be made to build further on this foundation.

I believe it is too early, too premature, to go along the path of suggesting that there is any change in the Israeli attitude toward peace.

The elections were an exercise of a democratic process aimed at electing the person who presents the best hope for the people of Israel to lead them through the phase that is ahead. It had nothing to do with a peace camp or those opposed to peace. I believe the overwhelming majority of Israelis are committed to peace.

The peace treaty between Jordan and Israel had an overwhelming majority of votes supporting it in the Israeli Knesset, probably more than the votes achieved on any other subject over a long period of time. I don't know where this notion came from that we should regard this election as indicative of a change of course, particularly when we have heard already that the Israeli government intends to honor all its commitments and obligations and, on the other hand, to continue to build with all the partners in the peace process toward achieving a comprehensive peace.

Q: Do you expect the summit in Cairo to be heated?

A: I don't expect it to be otherwise. There is every need for frankness and candor.

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