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This interview, featured in the Oxford University newspaper, took place shortly before Israeli voters elected Binyamin Netanyahu prime minister of Israel. In the article, King Hussein affirms his commitment to a full peace between Jordan and Israel. He also stresses that Jerusalem should be a symbol of peace between Arabs and Israelis, with the holy sites being “above the sovereignty of any nation.” When asked about the possibility of a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, the King makes it clear that it is premature to discuss any such possibility until the Palestinians are able to choose freely whatever path they desire.


“To Play the King”

Lucy Manning, Cherwell

(Oxford University Newspaper)


February 23, 1996

This article is based on an interview with His Majesty King Hussein.


There is a story, told with great pleasure by Shimon Peres, about a secret meeting he attended with King Hussein of Jordan many years before peace had been agreed. Hosted by the eminent Labour peer, Lord Mischon, at his London home, Peres recounts that on finishing their meal, the King and the Prime Minister offered to wash the dishes, an offer that was declined even though they professed to be equal to the task.

King Hussein beams at the memory. “Yes I remember it well. I think we might have been persuaded otherwise, we might have helped a little though,” he declares with a hearty laugh. This shared experience reflects the long friendship between the two leaders, although this is less surprising when he admits that Jordanian and Israeli officials had been “meeting at the very highest level on and off since 1967.”

King Hussein, the Harrow and Sandhurst-educated monarch, has been welcomed by the Israeli population in a manner that was not extended to President Sadat, the Egyptian peacemaker, nor his Egyptian successor. It is a reception Yasser Arafat knows will remain unobtainable. He admits to be being very moved by the warmth which he has received from Israelis, attributing it to the mutual respect that always existed between the two countries. He had tried to imagine Rabin’s position and understand his difficulties, a practice apparently reciprocated by the Israeli leader. However, unwilling to draw a comparison between his relations with Israel, and with the cold Egyptian peace, he claims: “As far as we are concerned peace is peace. There are no degrees as to whether it should be warm or cold or cooler.”

The King appears to be enjoying the peace he created, piloting his plane over Jerusalem soon after agreement was reached, communicating from Israeli skies to Yitzhak Rabin in the control tower, like two youngsters with a new set of walkie-talkies. “The trip was like no other: it was extremely emotional as it was the first time I was to fly over Jerusalem, as a Muslim, as a Hashemite, as an Arab, as a young boy who witnessed the loss of his grandfather [assassinated in Jerusalem] who was committed to the cause of peace. I passed over our holy places in a different context to all the preceding years.”

Yet the mention of Jerusalem, immediately brings to the surface differences between the two countries, differences that persist regardless of the genuine friendship. In a Jordanian government publication on Jerusalem, there are sections detailing “incidents of violence and desecration in Islamic Holy sites under Israeli protection” and “Israeli measures to Judaize Arab East Jerusalem.” While Peres has declared Jerusalem Israel’s eternal and indivisible capital, King Hussein takes a different line. “I hope this issue will be addressed in the only way that it can: West Jerusalem has been the de facto capital of Israel, East Jerusalem is occupied territory. We should make these two parts a symbol of the efforts of peace, and the holy sites should be above the sovereignty of any nation.”

A variety of Palestinians, from Hamas militants to intellectuals like Edward Said, have criticized Chairman Arafat for his failure to obtain assurances about the establishment of a Palestinian state. With the period of Palestinian autonomy now underway, Jordan is deeply affected by these plans for statehood; having previously to contend with shouts of “Jordan is Palestine,” it now has a population, half of which is of Palestinian origin, and the shouts are now ones of a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation.

For all his openness, King Hussein speaks about a Palestinian state in careful, measured tones, neither wanting to condemn or condone. The reluctance to whole-heartedly back the issue suggests suspicions remain about an independent Palestinian state. “As far as we are concerned elements of a Palestinian state are now more recognisable than at any stage in the past.” So would he be happy with an independent Palestinian state? “I would be happy with whatever they are happy with.” And the possibility of a Palestinian-Jordanian confederation? “We believe that events will take care of themselves.” Unable to suppress a wide smile he adds “President Arafat has told me time and again that he has plans for a confederation in his pocket, and I have told him to keep it in his pocket until such time as Palestinians are able to express themselves freely. I hope they will, and then we can look.”

So is it a possibility? “I think it is premature to discuss it, and it’s very important not to appear to be trying to force Jordan’s views on the Palestinians. Nothing could be more damaging to this very special relationship. Therefore we will support whatever the Palestinians wish in whatever way we can, without reservations, but beyond that, the time is not right to discuss it.”

A more immediate concern is whether Yasser Arafat can deliver what is now expected of him, in terms of creating an infrastructure and guaranteeing Israeli security, free from terrorist attack. While the King is positive, hoping Arafat can achieve both, he is not unduly worried that setbacks will affect Jordan’s relations with Israel. “I believe the divide has changed in our region, it is not Jordan and Israel, or the Palestinians and Israel, it is people who believe in peace, and I hope the will of the majority will prevail.”

With Israeli elections approaching, if the recent spate of Hamas bombings continues, then there is a possibility that the majority in favour of peace, will turn into a majority in favour of security, damaging support for the peace process. It is, he says, a battle between those with a destructive agenda and limited vision, and the forces of good, a description applying to both Jewish and Islamic extremists. After the deaths in Jerusalem this week, are Hamas now a step closer to destroying the peace process? “I hope they are not, I hope people will realise that it is peace that is the target, it is the future of our peoples and the entire region that are the victims. I am shocked, angered and deeply upset by what has happened.”

It is not only terrorists that present a threat to the momentum of the peace process. A Likud election win will see the introduction of a more hard-line attitude and negotiating stance. While he believes the result is unlikely to affect Jordan, it appears obvious that a Likud victory would not benefit the region. “We hope somehow that people will move to give peace a chance in our area, in other words a comprehensive peace.” For a man who has dealt intimately with Shimon Peres, he is well placed to defend him from criticism that he is too weak to protect Israeli interests. “I have known him over a long period of time, I believe he has the vision, the commitment and the courage. I wish him every success and I will help in any way I can.”

It is, however, in his relations with Rabin that King Hussein’s contribution to Middle East peace will be remembered. His moving eulogy at Rabin’s funeral demonstrated the loss was not just political but a very personal one, and the King’s voice still breaks with emotion when recalling this tragedy. “I was deeply shocked and very angered by that loss. He was a friend, a man I respected, and we worked together for a common objective. He had great talent, demonstrated through war and then through his attempt for the settlement of peace. He gave his life for what he believed in.”

King Hussein, who has now ruled Jordan for over forty years, must steer his country as it adapts to this new era. He greatly admires the European Union, who after major wars came together in a way he hopes the Arab world and Israel will emulate. In the region, threats still exist. Iraq has previously caused difficulties for the King; he was condemned by the West for supporting them during their invasion of Kuwait. Sighing deeply at the accusation that he picked the wrong side, he protests that he picked what he thought was the side of sanity, “I tried to see if there was any possible way of resolving the problem within the Arab Republics, we never supported the invasion.”

Iraq has again posed a problem, with the murder of Saddam Hussein’s brothers-in-law who defected to Jordan. Jordan has been accused of asking them to leave after they criticised the government, an accusation the King denies. “They were quite welcome, they were honoured guests, however they had been quite critical of the attitude regarding Iraq. So it might have been suggested that if they wanted to remain our honoured guests they had to respect our views. But there was nothing suggesting they should leave. It was their wish.”

In a region characterised by instability, King Hussein has remained to guide his country through war and into peace. He has lost his partner-in-peace along the way, but his optimism is undiminished. It is a sign of his statesmanship, that his land, as slight in build as its monarch, has been able to have such an impact on the region’s move towards peace.