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This interview provides a glimpse of King Hussein’s inner thoughts, as he reflects on the long history of strife and conflict he has viewed, his hopes for the future, and how he wishes to be remembered after he is gone. His Majesty says that people are the key to both peace and security, and refutes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s notion that security leads directly to peace, saying “You can’t have security and then begin to talk about peace. That is almost impossible.”

King Hussein describes the grief he felt over the March 13, 1997 shooting of Israeli schoolgirls by a Jordanian soldier, and then his emotions as he visited their bereaved families shortly thereafter. His Majesty’s condolence visit to Israel was criticized by some at the time, but showed once again that a courageous and noble act can have ramifications on the human level which far outweigh political calculations.


BBC “Hardtalk”

Interviewer: Tim Sebastian

July 10, 1997


Sebastian: Can we start with the peace process, which stumbles from crisis to crisis? Do you lose hope?

King Hussein: I do not lose hope. I will never lose hope. And I have a great belief that people with vision and with knowledge of what is at stake will eventually make their voices heard and prevail.

Sebastian: Never in the darkest moments of night in the worst periods—and you've endured some pretty bad periods in the peace process—don't you ever think this isn't going to work?

King Hussein: I think it must work; there is no other way. There is no other worthy cause to struggle to try to achieve for the good of all the people of the region: Israelis and Arabs alike, Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians, Lebanese; the whole region.

Sebastian: But, you've said in the past even when your heart is breaking—and your heart has broken many times over the years—you have to smile, and that is even more heartbreaking, isn't it?

King Hussein: It is indeed, sir. Well, if you want the truth, I am very worried about the fact that we are stumbling at this stage, and although there is a mechanism in place, I understand, to deal with the security aspect of the problem and which Israel and our Palestinian brethren are working with the help of Egypt—Egypt has done a lot and is doing a lot nobly and sincerely to save the peace process, under President Mubarak. And, also, the political dimension of the problem is being addressed through a mechanism that is available, with the help of the United States in both cases...

Sebastian: Perhaps these mechanisms aren't working any more.

King Hussein: I haven't seen anything yet. I haven't seen anything tangible yet. And I don't know whether people in a position of responsibility of either side realize that time is slipping and that something must happen very soon; otherwise we are really concerned that hope will be lost and violence, and then we don't know where we go.

Sebastian: What is going on behind the scenes? What attempts are being made? What don't we know about?

King Hussein: I think that a choice was made some while ago to tackle the problems, if possible, quietly and away from the limelight. And I believe this is the right choice, a similar way to what had happened before. So, the talks haven't stopped. In a way, the discussions are going on, as far as I understand, but they haven't produced anything as yet, or maybe we are approaching that. But in the meantime, people's hopes and expectations . . . the frustration grows.

Sebastian: Like the riots that we saw in Hebron recently?

King Hussein: Like the riots, and anything else that could happen and could be dissatisfactory.

Sebastian: The hatred is just below the surface. You see Hamas leaders calling for more suicide bombings against Israel. What do you feel when you hear that kind of thing?

King Hussein: Well, it is which comes first, security or peace, or peace or security. We seem to be going around these issues. But, peace can only be achieved if people believe in it, if people work for it, if people are ready to contribute to it. And, with it comes security, because then you feel on both sides that you have got something worthwhile protecting, and that we are embarking on a new phase of hope and attempting to put an end to the past and the tragedies that had occurred. However, if that is not achievable, you can't have security and then begin to talk about peace. That is almost impossible.

Maybe politicians can talk, but what do ordinary people feel? What do they go through everyday? What humiliation do they suffer? What indignity do they suffer?

Sebastian: Well, in your country, they feel increasingly resentful towards the peace process.

King Hussein: I think in the whole region they feel that maybe things are not working the way they should. With regard to Jordan and Israel, I've tried my best, and we are trying our best to make it a peace between people, a people-to-people peace, to remove the barriers. Some people realize on both sides that what separated them was something in their minds much more than anything real.

Sebastian: But, there is still a lot of criticism of you—isn't there?—and of the peace treaty with Israel.

King Hussein: There are those who are critical and, of course, when there is no visible progress in a major way on all tracks, and particularly the Palestinian one, then they are more vocal.

Sebastian: Your Majesty, last March you visited the families of Israeli schoolchildren who were killed by a Jordanian soldier. You knelt in front of those families. What did it cost you to do that?

King Hussein: I didn't think of any cost. It never came to my mind, in fact. I felt that both I and Jordanians and our armed forces had suffered terribly by this act, and it reflected very badly on us. And it was something which is alien to everything we stand for and teach and believe in. It was a cowardly act; it was an act of madness. Anyway, law and the process of law is ongoing, and I believe that we'll have a verdict in the next few days on this particular case. But, as far as I was concerned, those children were like my children. They were there enjoying a new atmosphere of peace, visiting, and this happened in our home, so this drove me to go.

And, of course, there were those who criticized, and those who said I knelt on the ground. Well, everyone was sitting on the ground. I do not know where I could have been sitting anyway. But, I just wanted to express the feelings of Jordanians and the armed forces of Jordan, and anyone with any honor or decency in Jordan, and they are the overwhelming majority of our people. Our feeling of solidarity and grief for the horrendous loss of life.

Sebastian: How desperate did you feel when you saw those families?

King Hussein: I didn't feel desperate. In a way I felt very upset, I felt very moved by all I saw when I got to know the families as well. It wasn't an attempt to do anything on the political level, but just a human gesture I felt I had to do, to carry out on behalf of all Jordanians.

Sebastian: It seems as you get older that the pain goes deeper somehow into you, the pain of the constant bloodshed.

King Hussein: It does, sir, in the sense that you want to see results, you want to leave something behind. There are many who act in our part of the world and who speak of religion and faith and that it is their drive. But actually what is driving them is an ambition to reach power and to secure it in some way or another. They're not working for a life beyond this life.

And what I would like, what I have committed myself to achieve is to leave people, long after we have gone, a different life, a different opportunity to live in, to cooperate, to explore possibilities of creating something in our region that is not there yet, and that has been denied us over so long. And so when I see things not moving in the right direction rapidly enough, I really get quite upset.

Sebastian: If you take it so personally, this bloodshed, how can you get away from it? What do you do to ease the suffering inside yourself?

King Hussein: One lives with these problems day and night, and they are there pushing one to continue to try one's best, and particularly against mentalities and minds that seem to be preset, and do not give and take, and do not see exactly where the future ought to be. And they're prisoners themselves of their past.

Sebastian: Do you count Prime Minister Netanyahu in that category?

King Hussein: Prime Minister Netanyahu is a person who will be judged in time, but I certainly wished him the best. I gave him all the support I could. Initially, he was the choice of the Israeli people for the person of the prime minister of Israel. But, I must admit, I am very disappointed with the performance as a whole of Israel, in terms of its government and its leadership in the present and recent past. I really hope that we will see some improvement before it's too late.

Sebastian: You talk about him in the past tense as if you've washed your hands of him. Have you washed your hands of him?

Hussein: I haven't, sir. I have to deal with him, and I will continue to do so, as long as he is in this position. It is ironic, though, that he is probably the most powerful prime minister in the history of Israel in terms of his position now following the recent changes in the constitution and the elections. Yet, I think that there is an image of Israel that we have never seen in the past of uncertainty, of differing views, of an internal struggle, of movement in the direction of peace, then moving in the opposite direction, of almost confusion. And in the meantime a waste of time, a waste of precious time.

And I do not talk about Israelis or Jordanians. To me, I believe that there is a peace camp, and there are those who are opposed to it, who are procrastinating, who are trying to destroy the chances of progress.

Sebastian: But, would you put Netanyahu in that camp?

King Hussein: I hope not. But, I really am despairing of the situation more and more as time passes by.

Sebastian: And then there was this extraordinary exchange of letters last March, where you wrote that he was pushing Arabs and Israelis towards an abyss of bloodshed and disaster. What made you write that letter and make it public?

Hussein: I've always been very, very frank and very open with our counterparts on the Israeli side and for that matter anyone else. I wrote that letter, and it was not meant to be publicized. But they leaked, or somehow it leaked on their side, and then I felt that the full truth ought to come out. I think it dealt with issues, with so many commitments that were made and could have been translated into facts as far as the Palestinians were concerned, could have made a difference to the situation. The fact that one of the most important aspects of this whole process is that if you commit to something then you have to deliver on it; you have to deliver it within the time agreed and in every possible way, and if you don't . . .

Sebastian: So, he let you down, personally let you down?

King Hussein: I think he let himself down, maybe, let the people of Israel down, let people who believe in peace down, if that is to continue. But I don't know, I keep hoping that somehow we will get out of this.

Sebastian: And when he visited you in hospital in the United States?

King Hussein: We had a very good talk. I was very encouraged, I was very hopeful.

Sebastian: The tone was good?

King Hussein: It's always been. Whenever we have met that has been the case. But, then what happens afterwards is a cause of concern and confusion.

Sebastian: So you agree when you meet together, you agree, you shake hands, you talk, you exchange pleasantries?

King Hussein: We talk openly. We seem to have the same views, certainly the same objectives. But then things just do not seem to continue in a part that you could recognize or identify with what you have spoken about.

Sebastian: Does that mystify you?

King Hussein: It does mystify me.

Sebastian: Have you not told him this? You speak still regularly to him?

King Hussein: I do speak to him, and I'll continue to speak to him as long as he is in this position of responsibility in his country. And I'll try my best to help. But, I think that a long time ago, sir, in Washington following the crisis of Hebron, when we departed, he said he is still determined to surprise me, and I am still waiting for the surprise. Let's hope that all of us are pleasantly surprised by progress.

Sebastian: By contrast, your Majesty, how much confidence do you have in Yasser Arafat?

King Hussein: He is trying his best. I think he is committed to peace. I believe that very, very firmly. I think that he is facing enormous difficulties and an enormous challenge, and unless he can show that his position and leadership produces results, for all the Palestinian people . . . then his position is also jeopardized.

Sebastian: You've had a rocky past with him over the years, haven't you?

King Hussein: Yes.

Sebastian: You said in 1985, you implied he was unworthy to lead the Palestinians. You've changed that view?

King Hussein: He is their choice, and he is their leader, regardless of what I might have held or said at that time. At that time, I was frustrated over the fact that he was not able to take the right decisions, I believed, or to move towards the peace process, but he has done that. It took time and it took many events in the region to bring that about, but I believe he is firmly committed to peace and he is doing his best towards that end. No one is perfect.

Sebastian: But the signs are not good, are they, your Majesty? I mean the building blocks, the corruption that we have seen, the imprisonment, the torture, the security agencies' running rampant.

King Hussein: I think that everything is compounded by the fact that there is no progress, there is nothing that the Palestinians can see.

Sebastian: But human rights don't need to be violated because of that, do they?

King Hussein: No, they don't need to be violated, I agree with that.

Sebastian: Have you said that to him?

King Hussein: I have been very frank with him whenever I've seen him. And I have nothing but the wish that he would succeed, because his success means that the Palestinians will achieve what they hoped to achieve and what is their right. And I will do everything I can to help. I have never been personal, sir, in my relations with anyone in the area. I have never taken anything in that way in the past. And we have suffered a lot because if one approaches responsibility in that manner then probably one would not talk to half of the world in a sense.

Sebastian: You've never taken it personally either, you said in the past the number of people who've tried to kill you. Why, why not? It has happened so many times, you once said, I think, that you felt you play with all the bad detective novels?

King Hussein: I think, sir, that people have differing views and approaches, and understanding. I never condone the use of violence to express their feelings. I believe in human rights, I believe in democracy, I believe in people expressing themselves, I believe in their sharing in shaping their future.

Sebastian: Not to the point of pointing a gun at you surely?

King Hussein: Well, that's unfortunate, and it happens from time to time.

Sebastian: But you learned a lesson very early, didn't you, in 1951, when your grandfather was assassinated beside you in the al-Aqsa Mosque.

King Hussein: Yes, in Jerusalem.

Sebastian: And you watched all his helpers and all his assistants fleeing, and you learned the frailty of political devotion. Was it a lesson which you've never forgotten?

King Hussein: I think that the important element is myself, how I am able to live with myself, and the realization that life is a transition, and that we have to work beyond these days to a future that is worthwhile and hope that people will remember you well as one who did his best. But no one is there forever, that is a fact of life. And I wish to God that more people here realize that.

Sebastian: But this constant carnage, this constant killing and bloodletting, what's that done to you over the years?

King Hussein: I think it has pushed me more and more to do whatever I could to remove the causes of it, to deal with them, to give people chances that they were denied in the past. So, I don't think of a particular people, I think of the whole region and I am trying my best.

Sebastian: How frightened have you been over the years?

King Hussein: Not for myself, sir, frightened for . . .

Sebastian: For your family?

King Hussein: For the family, for the Jordanian family. They're all my family, sir.

Sebastian: But your closest family, your son, who is here with you now?

King Hussein: I think it is very unfair when my sons and members of my family are placed in danger because people try to get at me. But, that's part of the price we all have to pay to be able to do something worthwhile and to leave, hopefully, a good imprint in the history of the region.

Sebastian: Your Majesty, the time you spent in England growing up, your time at Harrow, one of the best known of England's private schools, what did that do for you? Was it a very strange place when you arrived?

King Hussein: It was a very strange place when I first arrived, but I enjoyed it. I learned a lot. I learned of a different world, a world that is much wider than our limited area and our limited region. And beyond Harrow, Sandhurst was a wonderful experience for me as well, and the motto “serve to lead” was one that will always be in my mind and my heart.

But beyond that, I think this particular subject is interesting, in the sense that those in our part of the world who haven't seen, who haven't experienced the rest of the world, who haven't moved, do not do that regularly. I think there is always a danger, sir, that people do not have a proper perspective on what life really is, and what the world really is, and what needs to be done.

Sebastian: You supported Saddam Hussein during the Gulf war, something that surprised and even shocked many of your friends around the world. Do you think looking back on it that was a big mistake?

King Hussein: My perspective was not one of support for Saddam Hussein in any way.

Sebastian: But you were seen that way, weren't you?

King Hussein: Well, that is the unfortunate part. I tried to see what could be done to save the situation without bloodshed to get them out of Kuwait and to solve the problem within the context of the area, and to avoid all the damage that I expected would happen, and I still think that the problem is not resolved. But, unfortunately I could not even influence them in any form or way. We are supportive of the people of Iraq and hopeful that one day Iraq can be saved.

Sebastian: You are saying that about an area that has remained one of the world's key flashpoints for so many years, while you and so many others have put efforts into trying to build a peace process—a peace process that has floundered, effectively floundered, that is going nowhere at the moment, and yet you still have these dreams.

King Hussein: Well, if you don't have them, then what do you have? The dreams are there, and determination is there, and the hope and trust in people, particularly the young people who, I believe, are fed up with politicians and fed up with leaders who do not deliver and fed up with wars, and fed up with the loss of opportunities and chances and the carnage, and to whom we owe a responsibility to continue to try.

Sebastian: But if I can just bring you to a concrete vision of how you see a settlement in the Middle East, how much of the West Bank goes to the Palestinians, whether the idea of land-for-peace is still at the center of your calculations, that it needs to be at the center of your calculations. Do you have in your mind an exact blueprint of a Middle East peace settlement?

King Hussein: I don't have in my mind an exact blueprint. I had it in my mind when we were responsible for the West Bank and for negotiating. But since the Rabat summit conference (1974) when the Palestinians and the Arab World decided that responsibility should be taken away from us to the Palestine Liberation Organization and its leaders for that very area, and since Oslo, we have nothing to say or do except to give them all the support that we can and all the help that we can within the means available to us.

Sebastian: Your Majesty, as far as achieving your aims and objectives, how is your health?

King Hussein: I'm fine, sir. I'm in good shape.

Sebastian: But there have been alot of visits to hospital, alot of checkups, alot of operations.

King Hussein: They have been, first of all, they have been observing me since I had my first episode of the beginnings of cancer, and the surgery that followed, and in four and a half years after that event there is no trace of cancer.

I am not young any more as I used to be, so my approach has been to have these checkups. And whenever any sign of a problem appears, to deal with it immediately, so they do not accumulate and come too difficult at a certain point in time. But everything is fine. I'm in good health and good spirits despite the fact that we live in a very rough neighborhood.

Sebastian: Are you grooming one of your sons as a successor?

King Hussein: I'm hoping that they will all, all members of my family, sir, will have a chance to be a part of Jordan and a part of its progress and its future, not as a given right but through their own merit and abilities.

Sebastian: And how would you like your term in office, your period of rule for forty-five years on the throne so far, direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, how would you like people to talk of you in the future?

King Hussein: As a person who believed in them first, who served them with his heart, his soul, and mind, who gave them and gave the region a chance at achieving a future that is worthy of them, and particularly in the coming together of the descendants of the Children of Abraham, in peace and in harmony; and who completed the mission that my grandfather and those who preceded me tried to achieve in a successful way, or certainly moved the process ahead to a point for others to take over and continue.

Sebastian: Your Majesty, thank you very much for being with us.