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This interview appeared as part of a special issue about Jordan in the bimonthly US magazine Middle East Insight. In it, King Hussein speaks at length on the need to forge lasting relationships between people, rather than just governments, in order to break down fears and stereotypes that hinder the building of peace. He expresses his respect for the courage and pragmatism of the late Israeli Prime Minister Rabin, as well as his hope that the current Israeli leadership will realize the importance of moving forward with peacemaking. His Majesty calls on the US government to assume a more active role in the Arab-Israeli peace process, and to engage in a dialogue with Iraq which will hopefully lead to the lifting of sanctions against the Iraqi people.


"Embracing the Future"

George Nader,

Middle East Insight

Amman, Jordan

May-June, 1998

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


King Hussein bin Talal, a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, is the longest serving head of state in the world today. His great-grandfather, Hussein bin-Ali, was Sharif of Mecca and led the 1916 Arab Revolt against Ottoman forces, and his branch of the Hashemite family ruled the holy city of Mecca from 1201 until 1925—over 700 years. King Hussein’s grandfather Abdullah assumed the throne of Transjordan, founding the Emirate of Transjordan in 1921. The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was created upon formal independence from the British in 1946. King Hussein assumed his constitutional powers on May 2, 1953.

Born in Amman in 1935, King Hussein attended Victoria College in Egypt, and Harrow School and the Royal Military Academy in the United Kingdom. He is married to Queen Noor al-Hussein, a second-generation Arab-American.

This exclusive interview was conducted in Amman, Jordan, by George A. Nader, Middle East Insight’s President and Editor.


MEI: Your Majesty, it is both unique and remarkable that you have been in power over 40 years.

King Hussein: Forty-five years on May 2 [1998] since I assumed my constitutional powers.

MEI: What would consider your primary achievements over those years?

King Hussein: The major achievements have involved becoming very much a part of Jordan, feeling the pulse of the people of Jordan, and working with them in the process of building a mother country, a dynamic society, a democracy which we hope will be an

example to others in this part of the world and elsewhere. At the same time, we are still struggling for a just and comprehensive peace in this area that will enable all of us to achieve a future that is worthy of us and to give future generations a chance to live a life that has been denied us for so long.

MEI: What would you consider to be your greatest challenge?

King Hussein: The peace process and an emergence from dark and dangerous times: To see Palestinians recover legitimate rights on their legitimate soil, and to see the Syrian and Lebanese problems addressed and resolved in terms of the return of the Golan and southern Lebanon. The building-blocks of peace—starting with the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, followed by the Jordanian agreement, the Palestinian solution, the Syrian issue, and the Lebanese dimension—would open up the whole area for the kind of development that it has been denied for so long.

MEI: How is Jordan progressing along the path of political reform and democratization?

King Hussein: It is moving in the right direction. It is taking time, and we are learning. We learned a long time ago to be very tolerant of each other. We have decided on a dialogue between our people. As far as democracy is concerned, I think that there are still some steps that should be taken in time. I am particularly referring to the party system, where it is not a question of individuals but of a smaller number of parties with ideas and with plans that could excite and gain the support of many segments of the population. Then we can really have the kind of democracy that we are seeking.

MEI: No other Arab leader has had the kind of contacts and relationships with the Israelis as you have. How would you describe the process of negotiating peace with Israel, and can other Arab leaders apply lessons from your experience?

King Hussein: The process is a difficult one. We are dealing with complexes, fears, problems inherited from the past. Despite the fact that they are extremely powerful, probably more so than many in the area—as they have demonstrated time and again—one must realize that they also have an innate fear of the future owing to the experiences the Jewish people have had in their past. To remove these fears, to create the atmosphere of peace, you have to do everything you can to break the walls that have separated people for so long and enable them to get together.

I have often witnessed the wonderful discovery that occurs when people suddenly realize that they are the same, that their problems are the same, that their fears are the same, that their hopes are the same, that their aspirations are the same. And so I have tried my best to create a people-to-people relationship. As a result, a lot of Israelis listen when I speak with them or address them. We cannot ignore the human dimension of relations, and we should do whatever we can to encourage contact amongst people because, after all, it is not a question of peace between governments—it's rather a question of peace between peoples. That is the best guarantee of the kind of future we all seek. So that fears are removed, so that mutual confidence is built, so that relations are based on mutual respect—and since there is no alternative except disaster to all of us in this entire region—we must do whatever we can for the cause of peace.

MEI: Over the course of many years, Your Majesty has held a very cordial and warm personal relationship with various Israeli leaders, especially with the late Prime Minister Rabin. Furthermore, when Prime Minister Netanyahu was elected, you spoke with optimism about the continuity of the peace process. Yet, over the past months, you have expressed disappointment in public and in private about the subsequent deterioration of relations. What have been those disappointments, and what have been the differences with the Netanyahu government?

King Hussein: The late Mr. Rabin was a man who fought for the survival of Israel. He was probably one of their greatest soldiers and we respect that, although at that time we were on opposite sides. But, beyond that, the greatest insight he had through his experience as a soldier was a realization that only peace is worthwhile, that peace is the only answer—that there was enough damage, that there were enough lives lost, that there was enough bloodshed—and so he committed himself to the cause of peace. This enabled us to work out our problems well together, particularly after our Palestinian brothers decided to go their own way and assume their own responsibility regarding their future.

Another aspect of Rabin's character that we admired was that, while we would differ and we would argue, when we reached the point where one of us would convince the other of the validity of a point or a policy—that was it. You forgot about it and left it behind, because that was how things would progress. His loss will be felt for a long period of time. With regard to what happened afterwards: Prime Minister Netanyahu came to power as a result of a democratic election. I believe that he and his government are in the process of evolution. I hope he will realize that there is no other option—if he thinks realistically and deeply of the interests of the Israeli people, the Palestinians, the Jordanians, everybody else in this region—than a policy not dissimilar from Rabin's in terms of establishing a comprehensive peace. For that to happen, we need mutual respect. We need

it in order to cooperate, and we need it if we are to remember always the foundations on which the whole process was based—Resolution 242, Oslo, the Hebron agreement witnessed by Jordan and the United States. A commitment is a commitment, and whatever is committed to must be made sacred.

If we are to move ahead, and not keep stumbling backwards to a discussion we already put behind us, we must act in an atmosphere free of fear on both sides and not let a small minority of extremists here or there—with limited vision—destroy what has been accomplished and what could still be accomplished. As far as I am concerned, I would like to help the Israeli prime minister as much as I can, but on things where we see eye to eye. I told him the other day that we should argue if need be, and we do in fact from time to time. But then we should reach a conclusion. I think that he is in a position, and his government is in a position, to save the peace process. Will they do that? I really hope—I pray—that this will be the case.

MEI: You continue to be hopeful?

King Hussein: I am always hopeful. I have to be hopeful, there is no other alternative. But we need to continue to work and the United States is a partner. In the peace process, the partner doesn't just sit and allow things to deteriorate to the point of disaster. The United States is needed with thoughts and with ideas, not only with the attitude of a messenger between parties, but—when things get rough—to come in and help with what is just and what is right, to overcome difficulty.

MEI: Your Majesty, you have enjoyed overwhelming respect, loyalty and support for your policies in Jordan as a whole. Yet, how would you explain the great deal of skepticism, criticism and concern among your people concerning the peace process with Israel? Is it because few Jordanians have felt the rewards or benefits of peace?

King Hussein: Yes, a lot has happened so far, but much remains to be done. It takes time, it is not easy, and maybe people's expectations of the change in quality of life were too high to begin with. Perhaps the fact that progress is not being made on other fronts also has a negative effect. There are people who are vocal and we are a democracy. We respect their views anti disagree with them—which is our right, as well.

A while ago, I had the privilege of visiting every part of the country. I had decided to sit on top of a car, exposed, and to be in direct physical contact with people in every part of the country I control. I was overwhelmed by the support, warmth and kindness of one and all, and their confidence which is, after all, the most treasured aspect of my life. So one can't say that Jordan is all what you hear in a very limited area of Amman. I think people believe that peace is something that brings them benefits and peace is something that is their right—to be able to live a different life from that which they did in the past, where one didn't know what each day would bring. We may be on the verge of a take-off, and I hope we are headed in the right direction. These hopes are not only as far as Jordan is concerned, but certainly as far as our Palestinian brothers are concerned regarding their legitimate rights on their legitimate soil and then, hopefully, in terms of Syria, the return of the Golan, the return of southern Lebanon, and peace. All these things are the building-blocks leading to a comprehensive peace and a better life for our region.

MEI: With that in mind, Your Majesty, have the peace deals—reached separately between the Israelis and different Arab countries—been as productive in your opinion as a single comprehensive deal could have been with all the Arabs on one side and the Israelis on the other?

King Hussein: It is fairly obvious that such an arrangement would have been preferable but, on the other hand, there are particular problems to each element in the equation. And it is a fact that we were unable to come together, first of all to agree on our concept of peace, and secondly to move in a meaningful way to achieve it. Therefore divisions have occurred, and yet we are trying our very best to cooperate with all our brothers and to keep them in the picture with all developments. The unity of the Arab positions is not that I should agree with A or B or C that the Arab world may dictate, but that positions should come as a result of give-and-take, so that we understand each other.

Now there is a lot of talk about an Arab summit, and I believe that all of us feel that there is a need for that. But we'll want to work hard behind the scenes and prepare all the elements, so that the result is an Arab position equal to the challenges that we face—whether in support of our Palestinian friends, or in support of the recovery of territories occupied, or in support of the reality of peace.

MEI: Your Majesty, you have a special and unique relationship with the Palestinians. How do you perceive the evolution and the development of this relationship in the future?

King Hussein: Only when our people are free to decide can we see exactly what can happen. As far as cooperation is concerned, it is developing with every passing day in so many fields and so many areas. Thank God, over time, Palestinians have realized that we have no ambitions, we have no desire to control them nor impose ourselves on them. We have had one mission since the Arab Revolt and up to this moment, and that is to see them regain control of their lives on their legitimate soil. We are very close to them, they are very close to us. Relations will be strong in the future. But we wait for the day when they can have their independent Palestinian state, with its capital in Jerusalem, and the possibility for lasting ties between us on the basis of equality.

MEI: How does Your Majesty respond to the claim that Hamas leadership and followers enjoy greater freedom in Jordan than anywhere else?

King Hussein: We recognize only the Palestinian leadership—the Palestinian Authority and President Arafat—and our support for them is total. If and when we see anyone—Jordanians or others in Jordan—acting in any way to weaken or call into question the reality of our commitment to the unity of the Palestinians, then we will take any actions that need to he taken to ensure that this doesn't happen. And so we do not recognize Hamas, nor do we recognize any other such organization. We watch everybody very, very carefully.

MEI: Your Majesty, you know the current leadership in Iraq very well. How would you suggest balancing the need to alleviate the tragic suffering of the Iraqi people which results from sanctions, and the need for full compliance by the Iraqi leadership with all UN resolutions?

King Hussein: I have suggested that the only way really to avert another crisis—which I see coming unless something is done—is to recognize that the one constant of Iraqi policy since 1990 has been a desire to talk to the United States directly. And I have no way of knowing why this should not happen. It did happen, after all, on the eve of the war—when Secretary [of State James] Baker met with [Iraqi Deputy President] Tariq Aziz.

I don't think the Iraqi leadership would wish to talk through any more intermediaries. The United Nations did a wonderful job in averting the last crisis, but unless there is a vision of some light at the end of the tunnel—which now begins to look dimmer—and unless there is some direct contact, in the sense of explaining directly what is required regarding the weapons of mass destruction or any other subject, I am afraid we might end up with another crisis. If there is dialogue and it does lead to full compliance with all terms and agreements, then the sanctions should be lifted because the Iraqi people are being strangled literally, from all directions, within and without.

If we speak of a possible change in Iraq, that change could only be the result of the people of Iraq deciding on change. It cannot happen from outside; pressure will not do it, certainly not the kind that is very, very tragic, and from which people are now suffering. Nor can military strikes produce answers, because we cannot know what might result.

Unfortunately there is a notion that the Israelis get away with a lot, and do not face the kind of pressure being applied to Iraq with more and more deaths amongst the Iraqi people and more and more destruction. The perception of a double-standard is especially dangerous and bears very close watching.

MEI: As Your Majesty knows, the American position rejects any dialogue with the current Iraqi leadership. There is a widespread belief in the Arab world that, no matter what Iraqis do, the Americans are going to continue the pressure. Do you see a way out?

King Hussein: We have to break out of this somehow. I hope that wiser minds can use their wisdom and courage to get us all through this.

MEI: Jordan has just closed a deal worth $600-800 million with Iran. How do you see the relationship between the two countries developing?

King Hussein: I think Iran is passing through a transition towards greater moderation and consolidation, and we were very impressed by the results of the recent elections in Iran. Whatever can be done to enhance relations on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation is something worth considering.

MEI: Your relations with Syria have been somewhat rocky, not as warm as they might be between neighbors. What factors govern Jordan's relations with Syria?

King Hussein: We are neighbors, with so much shared history and with common interests. Yet, at the moment, relations are relatively cool as you would suggest, with the exception that on the personal level, I am in touch with President Assad and he is in touch with me from time to time. We hope that this is a transition towards more cordial relations between us.

MEI: Israel has expressed interest in UN Security Council Resolution 425, which calls for the unconditional withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. However, Lebanon and Syria have expressed serious concerns about Israel's interpretation of 425. How does Your Majesty understand this situation?

King Hussein: We've being asking for 425 to be implemented for the last God knows how many years, and the implementation must clearly be unconditional. On the other hand, there is a Lebanese-Syrian connection with regard to occupied lands in both countries. And I would encourage that everything be done to ensure that there is a dialogue and a negotiation—or a resumption of negotiations—both with Syria and with Lebanon, to see the implementation of withdrawal from land, of land for peace, and eventually of peace treaties.

MEI: You spoke about the importance of the US role in achieving peace, and you have enjoyed a remarkable and very warm relationship with successive US administrations, as well as with Congress and the American public. What is the appropriate role for the United States at this critical juncture in mediating Middle East issues?

King Hussein: The United States is recognized as the major power in the world. The United States is a friend of all. The United States is described as a partner regarding the peace process, and a partner is not a messenger. A partner is someone who comes in to resolve problems when they occur, and we hope that the United States can come in and give its input at this critical juncture to ensure that the peace process is revived.

MEI: Your Majesty, although most major conflicts in the world are in the process of being solved, and democratization is on the rise globally, this is not the case in the Middle East. Furthermore, for all the Arab world's human resources and potential, it continues to lag far behind other regions. How do you explain this situation?

King Hussein: The reason is that we were initially far behind. At the time of the great Arab Revolt and the modernization of this century, there was so much to catch up on. Yet the area was divided and exploited to a very large extent. When an Arab feels that he has some say regarding his future, with leaders who recognize this reality, gradually things will change and a different situation will develop in the region.

MEI: How can Western influence he best integrated within Islamic society as a whole?

King Hussein: I don't see any difficulty in this, no difficulty whatsoever. The world is becoming smaller—it is becoming a global village in a way—and we should try to keep the best from our past, yet open ourselves up to the rest of the world and learn and catch up.

MEI: Your Majesty, some people believe that Western civilization and Islam are not compatible. What are your thoughts on this issue?

King Hussein: This is wrong. I keep telling our people that we should move forward towards Islam—not move backwards to Islam. This is the tragedy that we are facing in this part of the world, and I hope it will change for the better.