An Unlikely King: Hussein in War and Peace

An Unlikely King: Hussein in War and Peace

An Unlikely King: Hussein in War and Peace

An authoritative new biography of Jordan’s King Hussein offers an absorbing diplomatic history of the Middle East.


AP ImagesKing Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

The difficulty this formidable biography had to overcome was that its subject’s majesty and the kingdom he ruled were both, let us say, unlikely. The story of a desert prince whose grandfather was an intrepid king but whose father, the heir apparent, was mad–a prince who had been roughed up by tribal discipline and groomed in British public schools, who ascended his throne at 17 after his grandfather, his liege and mentor, was murdered before his eyes–would have quickened any reader of Kipling. But this was 1953, a little late for Hussein bin-Talal, the man who would be king, to bring the glow of Victorian monarchy to Bedouin tents. The previous year King Farouk had been overthrown in Egypt during the July 23 revolution; princes were going to Monte Carlo to look for starlets. And what was Jordan? Imagine the desert left over after imperial powers and stronger monarchs had carved up the region, a country that had recently conquered new lands west of the Jordan River, lands that happened to include the most contested holy city in history and, therefore, a million people who hated their conqueror’s guts.

There are three ways for the biographer, Avi Shlaim, to meet this challenge: one, create a vivid portrait of a youth who, maturing through dangerous tests, positioned himself more or less heroically among shifting allies and enemies; two, show how his force of personality, staying power and progressive spirit gave legitimacy to an artificial country and even engendered a kind of civil society; and finally, prove that his moral balance contributed positively to the much larger story into which he was swept up–in this case, a fatal regional conflict that threatened himself and his neighbors. Shlaim has neglected the second, but he’s made a compassionate attempt at the first and succeeded brilliantly at the third, so we gain a fairly complete diplomatic history of the Middle East through his subject’s eyes. That may be enough for any one book.

The Emirate of Transjordan, Shlaim writes, had been created in 1923 by the “stroke of [Churchill’s] pen,” a wasteland with nothing but a railway stop of a town between Damascus and Medina, the ancient Philadelphia, now Amman. “Bounded by the valley of the Yarmouk on the north, by the Arabian Desert on the east, by the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and Wadi Araba on the west,” Shlaim explains, “it had no outlet to the sea until Abdullah grabbed Ma’an and Aqaba from the expiring kingdom of the Hijaz,” the vast desert lands around Mecca and Medina, in 1925.

The Abdullah in question was the older middle son of Emir Hussein bin-Ali–the presumptive descendant of the Prophet–who was Sharif of Mecca at the beginning of World War I. Sir Henry McMahon, the high commissioner in Egypt, arguably promised Emir Hussein an independent Arab kingdom (and Muslim caliphate) from the Persian Gulf to Damascus if he and his sons rose against Ottoman rule–which they arguably did, in desultory guerrilla raids, famously supported by T.E. Lawrence, as the war turned in Britain’s favor. Behind the emir’s back, however, the British and French secretly concluded the Sykes-Picot Agreement, projecting east-to-west spheres of influence for each great power: Damascus to Beirut for France, Baghdad to Jaffa for Britain. Once the war ended, they secured League of Nations mandates over hinterlands attaching to these cities–the French in “Lebanon,” the British in “Palestine”–and drew up the rest of the weird borders we know today.

Though betrayed, the Hashemites were not entirely denied. By 1920 Emir Hussein had elevated himself to kingship in the Hijaz, while Abdullah seemed headed for the newly created “Iraq.” The center ring, however, was Damascus, where Faisal–younger than Abdullah but outranking him as the military commander–tried to assert his rule. Faisal had marched into the city with British forces in 1918. But he soon came to seem the champion of self-determination by a Syrian national elite opposed to great-power designs; by the end of 1920, Faisal had pretty much alienated all sides and was summarily expelled by the French.

The British too obviously acquiesced in this act, raising Hashemite suspicions of a conspiracy, which of course there was. So the clan turned around and installed Faisal in Iraq, permanently bumping Abdullah to Transjordan–itself hived off from Palestine and thus requiring Churchill’s pen. Things turned disastrous for the Hashemites when the Wahhabist Ibn-Saud drove Emir Hussein from his kingdom of the Hijaz (albeit without Aqaba) in 1925. We are still on the eighteenth of 723 pages.

Jordan was thus distinguished by not being Palestine, where the British governed and made room for Zionist colonists; not Saudi Arabia, newly formed by a militant enemy clan; not Syria, whose French masters and disappointed bourgeois nationalists rejected Hashemite pretensions; and not Iraq, the commanding brother’s consolation prize. Abdullah, according to one British official, was “much too big a cock for so small a dunghill” and continued to harbor dreams of a Hashemite resurgence in Greater Syria. At first, Syrian enemies of French rule descended on Amman. But it soon became clear that, to preserve his rule, Abdullah would rely on a British-trained force and £60,000 a year to fund his administration. He toed the line until the end of World War II.

Abdullah finally saw an opening. Jordan gained independence in 1946, and he cast his eye on turbulent Palestine; the land meant Jerusalem and a potential outlet to the Mediterranean. He coolly offered the Zionists autonomy under Hashemite rule and secretly met with Golda Meir in 1947. After the Holocaust, with the Haganah gaining strength, the offer was hardly taken seriously. But Abdullah’s luck changed in 1948, when the first Arab-Israeli war gave him a pretext to bring his British-trained Arab Legion across the Jordan River. He quickly moved to annex Arab cities and parts of Jerusalem, including the Old City and Noble Sanctuary.

Such was the wobbly, if united, kingdom that Hussein inherited in 1953. Its jewel–the city where his divine ancestor was believed to have ascended to heaven–came with an enraged population, including more than 200,000 refugees from Israel’s coastal plain, people who nursed the fierce conviction that the Hashemites were lackeys of the same imperialism that had enabled the Zionists to flood their land. Most Palestinians had been unready for the modernization that was being thrust upon them; in the 1930s, peasants had been dispossessed as much by the steady rationalization of their tiny land holdings as by Zionist purchases. Yet progressive urban types were even less likely than peasants to be impressed by the rites of passage of Hashemite princes. Not surprisingly, it was a Palestinian nationalist who shot Abdullah on the steps of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the summer of 1951, as his grandson watched in horror. Talal, Hussein’s depressive father, became king but proved unfit. A year later Hussein replaced him, and our story really begins.

The power plays the young king soon found himself executing could hardly have been more lethal or, for a novice strongman, more labyrinthine. By age 21, he had positioned himself between the Soviet bloc and American “interests,” British imperialism and anti-British pan-Arabism, Israeli military power and Palestinian insurgents, an Egyptian officer’s regime and a Syrian version, Hashemite relatives in Iraq (who sustained the blood feud with the heirs of Ibn-Saud) and the promise of Saudi Arabian patronage. He balanced socialism and oil wealth, the claims of democracy and the need for stability, Western cultural influence and the Islamist Hashemite “legacy,” relatives and retainers, the need to be loved and the need to be feared. He insisted on Jordanian independence against Iraqi Hashemite claims to eventual union. He weighed the hardfisted policies of his loyal Bedouin guard against his hope to ingratiate himself with his Palestinian subjects. Even his choice of wives–the second was English; the third, Palestinian–suggested strategy.

And there was not a moment when Hussein was not in crisis: Palestinian insurgents; retaliations from Israel; failed experiments in constitutional monarchy; tensions with Egypt’s President Nasser, whom the Palestinians revered; even tensions with Britain over his firing of Sir John Glubb, erstwhile commander of Jordan’s army. The Suez war exploded in the fall of 1956, exposing collusion between Israel and Hussein’s British sponsor. By the fall of 1958 Hussein was playing the Baathist regime in Iraq, which killed his favorite cousin, against the one in Syria, which seemed eager to kill him, and the power of both against Nasser’s more restrained brand of socialist pan-Arabism, which Palestinians generally counted on.

Hussein survived, Shlaim writes, by harmonizing “ideology and pragmatism”–a rather lofty way to characterize how he’d pose as the scion of the Arab awakening yet strike as the client of the Western powers. Shlaim details every move, much like a crime reporter covering an interminable gang war, marveling at the young boss’s ability to play for a draw or make his own luck. While reading the first few chapters, I thought to keep track of the assassination attempts–and gave up. But we never really learn what made this man tick; Shlaim has not written that kind of biography. He writes that Hussein was humane and exhibited “exceptionally gracious manners.” Mostly, we see him absorbed by treachery and pre-emption; we find ourselves pulling for him because we like his cleverness, brass and family loyalty–the way we pull for Michael Corleone.

You’d expect a survivor like this to keep his cool. Yet Shlaim shows that Hussein was something of a hothead back then: he “tended to wait upon events, to rely on intuition and sharp political instincts, and to make decisions on the hoof. There was also something of the gambler in him.” The jackpot remained Jerusalem, which Hussein nearly lost in the 1950s. Were it not for his elected prime minister, the Palestinian Suleiman Nabulsi, who restrained the somewhat too glorious young king during the Suez crisis, Jordan would have attacked Israel from the West Bank, and that would have been that. Then again, Hussein’s boldness also served him. After Suez, he realized he might lose Jerusalem–and the rest of his kingdom–to the “leftist” Nabulsi, who began to suggest the idea of a federation with Nasser. So Hussein staged a royal coup against Nabulsi in the spring of 1957, rallying his army in a series of gutsy encounters with potentially mutinous officers. This was the moment Hussein came into his own, shaping, if not quite securing, the Jordanian regime as we know it.

Hussein would then show up at Arab League conferences, voting for the consensus but piloting his own jet, subtly reminding the others of his RAF training. He didn’t criticize, but politely refused to join, Nasser’s abortive United Arab Republic. He’d shop for arms in Washington and London, and for clothes only in London. There he would also visit his Jewish doctor, Emmanuel Herbert, and secretly meet with Israeli officials (Shlaim especially documents the meetings with Ambassador Yaakov Herzog). You keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Ultimately, however, decisions made “on the hoof” go terribly wrong. In the fall of 1966 Palestinian guerrillas killed three Israeli soldiers, and Jordan suffered an unusually fierce retaliation at Samua. In the spring of 1967 Syria exchanged fire with Israel over the headwaters of the Jordan. Nasser pre-emptively closed the Straits of Tiran. Stampeded, Hussein joined an all-sided siege of Israel. He allowed Iraqi troops on his soil and put his army under Egyptian command. Finally–duped by fraudulent Egyptian intelligence–he joined the war on June 5, lobbing artillery shells into Israeli Jerusalem.

Hussein, Shlaim writes, never truly recovered from losing East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. But 1967 was also the acid test that proved the resiliency of what Hussein had already achieved. Hundreds of thousands of new refugees poured into the East Bank from the West. And yet the regime held: the monarchy, the army, the system of patronage, the rule of law. “This is not a country,” Shlaim quotes a British diplomat from an earlier time as saying, “but a geographical monument to the courage of one young man.”

Shlaim’s obvious admiration for his subject’s staying power is a virtue of the book but also a curiosity. For what emerges most clearly from this pre-1967 narrative is Jordan’s ceaseless triangular struggle–against Israel, of course, but also against the rival idea of Palestine. Shlaim, an Oxford professor, is generally sympathetic to current Palestinian demands and wrote critically of Israeli policies in his earlier book, The Iron Wall (2001). In the 1990s, he was considered a stalwart of Israel’s “revisionist” historians, along with Benny Morris and Ilan Pappé (who have since moved in opposite political directions). But you read this biography and see above all that Jordan and the Palestinian national movement have always undermined each other’s legitimacy more effectively than either has undermined Israel’s.

Shlaim never really acknowledges this in a way that would upset his Palestinian friends or diminish Hussein’s moral prestige. For a reader, this syncretism can be frustrating. Shlaim is impatient–a little too demonstratively so, perhaps–with historical Zionism and British sponsorship of it. It was, he writes, “a monumental injustice to the Palestine Arabs.” But when accounting for, say, Abdullah’s conquest of the West Bank, he portrays the Palestinians’ retrospective claims to thwarted nationhood as rather woolly: Sykes-Picot was a “breach of faith,” though Britain betrayed the Hashemites, after all, not (yet) the Palestinians; the Mufti of Jerusalem (Abdullah’s archrival) proved a grandiose sycophant of Hitler’s Germany; Palestinian militias that attacked Jewish settlements were actually reckless tools of Syria; and so on. Nor was the sin of denying the Palestinians a state of their own in 1948 a mortal one: “Those who sit in judgment upon [Abdullah] should recall that after the Arab rejection of the UN partition plan, the war for Palestine degenerated into a general land-grab.” The Palestinians were simply not good grabbers.

This summary of Jordan’s prehistory does not quite imply what Golda Meir famously declared in 1969: that in her day, the Palestinians as such “did not exist.” But though Shlaim mocks her for speaking this way, he comes pretty close to making a parallel claim. Was there really a culturally differentiable Palestinian nation not annexable to Syria? Was not the distinction of Palestinian national consciousness the immediacy of its political confrontation with Zionism?

The Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi, and Israelis such as Baruch Kimmerling and Yehoshua Porat, have shown how Palestinian national consciousness was shaped before the end of the British Mandate, so perhaps the question of cultural distinction is not worth raising. But you cannot consider the Hashemites sympathetically, as Shlaim does, without being bothered by it, which he seems not to be. The idea that Jordan is Palestine began in Amman, remember, not in the Likud.

If Jordan was going to be nothing but Jordan, though, what exactly would this be? Shlaim might have pulled at this thread a little, telling us more about the political economy of the dusty commonwealth Hussein created after 1967. He writes, summing up, that Hussein “had no understanding and virtually no interest in economic matters.” But this misses an important point, I think. In fending off challenges to his regime–paying off his retainers and keeping the mukhabarat (the security apparatus) loyal and efficient–Hussein was also creating a regime of defensible property and commercial freedom, which prompted a kind of bourgeois revolution in Amman. Palestinians were its primary beneficiaries. Hussein built good roads to a rather large airport, invited hotel construction, cleaned up the garbage. His government, largely prodded by his younger brother Hassan, advanced scientific competence, even women’s equality. Jordan now has more than thirty colleges and universities. “The politics of economic legitimacy,” Hassan told me back in 1983, “has fostered Jordan’s existence.”

Jordan is now a country of 6 million citizens, with a per capita income of about $5,000–a little less than Israel’s Arab citizens and four times the income of Palestinians in the occupied territories. Amman’s population is well over 2 million, and the city’s core district has more than twenty skyscrapers completed or under construction. It has an increasingly stable middle class that reads (and increasingly says) what it wants. Its legislature has a lower House of Deputies that is more or less freely elected, which Hussein’s son, Abdullah, consults the way a CEO consults shareholders’ groups at the annual meeting. Aqaba has booked hundreds of millions in new tourism investment. Jordanian growth is running at 6 percent, fueled in part by a refugee Iraqi elite.

This growth is not a small achievement. Jordan has no natural resources except Dead Sea minerals and the tourist sites Petra and Jerash. In the 1980s, the only other resource was–as a US diplomat put it to me–“a long border with Israel,” which allowed it to extort oil and money from confrontation states for staying within the Sunni Arab consensus–for example, by helping out Iraq in its war against Iran. As many as 400,000 Jordanians, most of them Palestinians, worked in the Gulf during this time. The sum of their remittances declined only after Hussein and the PLO failed to condemn Saddam’s incursion into Kuwait, which led to the expulsion of most Palestinians back to Jordan.

At the time this seemed a catastrophe; it proved another blessing in disguise. For the immediate loss of financial capital was made up for by a gain of intellectual capital, the entrepreneurial know-how acquired in the Gulf that launched thousands of businesses with regional possibilities: insurance, logistics and construction, engineering consultancies, food processing, clothing manufacture, investment banking, retailing, import-export, software solutions. In a way, the future Palestinian state is taking shape in the minds and wallets of the Amman diaspora, because Palestine’s future entrepreneurial elite is thriving here.

This may all sound more Rotarian than regal. Indeed, strip away the pipes, kilts and salutations, and Hussein was just another Arab president-for-life, making room for his son to succeed him, taking over where mosques and fathers left off. But Hussein was something of a pioneer, too, and he doesn’t get enough credit for it. Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, claiming fidelity to the Palestinian cause, tried to build state socialism in a country of equal size and with far greater resources. Hussein created a society of choices and opened his country to foreign journalists and investors. He made Palestinians citizens. Who, now, is trying to catch up with whom?

Jordan’s wealth is built on sand, however, and cannot outlast continuing wars. Which returns us to the book’s real purpose. Shlaim’s exhaustive analysis of Hussein’s peace efforts after 1967 turns his biography from a sketchy history of Jordan into an absorbing diplomatic chronicle. Shlaim has talked to the important players, dug up many necessary documents and reread the obvious newspaper accounts. Step by step, he guides us through the opportunities the players did not miss a chance to miss. It’s possible he got a detail wrong here and there, but his authority, and tenacity, are undeniable.

Hussein, in Shlaim’s treatment, emerges as a singularly calming presence, appalled equally by Israeli Scripture-hawks who began settling in Hebron in 1968 and, in the 1980s, Islamist militants who imported suicidal terror from Iran. His good “manners” seemed naturally to produce moderation in the face of leaders who, given a lesser sense of security, thought they had to act like bullies. In the years immediately following the 1967 war, he secretly offered Israelis a full peace treaty in exchange for the captured land, taking seriously UN Resolution 242, which implicitly recognized Israel–despite the PLO’s contempt for it and Israel’s “open bridges” policy, which amounted to disingenuous stalling. He steadfastly refused Israeli offers of collusion, embodied in the Allon Plan, which saw Jordan reassuming control of the West Bank without Jerusalem. Yet Hussein continued to pay West Bank teachers and civil servants, hoping for some kind of federal deal with the Palestinians, which would entail his triumphal return to Jerusalem. When Nasser opened fire on the Suez Canal in 1969, launching the gory War of Attrition, Hussein stayed out. He continued to try to restrain fedayeen from attacking Israel from his territory while tolerating their other activities. To be clear, Hussein’s army remained the best-trained (if not the best-equipped) Arab force in the region. But he never again mobilized it except in the most extreme cases of self-defense, such as the so-called Black September of 1970. Even then, when Hussein was allegedly at his cruelest, his actions suggested a desire to stay out of wars.

I won’t steal Shlaim’s thunder here; his narrative is gripping. Suffice it to say that Hussein inadvertently enabled Palestinian refugees to live in a PLO-controlled state-within-a-state after 1967, and then found himself trapped by his concessions. By 1970 he had confronted more than 350 underground bases in Amman alone. When open fighting finally broke out between the Jordanian army and Palestinian guerrillas in June of that year–during which Hussein survived two more assassination attempts–he continued to restrain his commanders, whose forces outnumbered insurgents five to one. Hussein then attempted an agreement on joint rule with Yasir Arafat.

Both sides, it is true, were biding their time. (It later came out that Palestinian insurgents modeled themselves on the Vietcong and were plotting a revolution, beginning with a general strike.) Hussein reached out to America to gain a pledge of support; he feared he would have to move against the PLO eventually–and risk invasion by Syria. This proved prescient. Nasser accepted the Rogers Plan in July 1970, ending the war on the canal; the plan entailed acceptance of UN Resolution 242. Immediately–mock spontaneously–PLO militants vented their rage on Jordan’s regime. Most took to the streets; some spectacularly hijacked foreign planes to Jordanian soil. Hussein’s army surrounded Palestinian camps and tried to restore order. The camps resisted fiercely. On September 18 of that year, a Syrian armored force with Palestine Liberation Army markings crossed into Jordan.

Desperate, Hussein asked for help from Israel (through Henry Kissinger). Israeli fighter jets buzzed the Syrian tanks. Hussein’s forces then engaged the Syrians, who withdrew, suffering serious casualties. Only then did Jordan’s army act, mopping up insurgent strongholds. More than 3,000 Palestinians died in the fighting. This led to yet another deal with Arafat in late September, brokered by Nasser (who died of a heart attack the next day). In July 1971, when fighting erupted again in the north, Hussein expelled Palestinian forces to Syria. They moved from there to southern Lebanon, auguring the 1982 war.

Afterward, Palestinian leaders and intellectuals depicted Hussein as a butcher and imperial stooge. Shlaim reveals these claims to have been fatuous. Even after he defeated Arafat in September 1970, Hussein tried to show some magnanimity, formally recognizing the PLO as a “legitimate representative” of the Palestinian people–a move that would be trumped by the PLO’s elevation at the Rabat summit of the Arab League in 1974 as the Palestinians’ “sole” representative, much to Hussein’s dismay. But the king learned to live with this blow, too, working around it as the times required.

Just before the 1973 war, he met secretly with Golda Meir in Tel Aviv, warning that the status quo had become explosive, though not tipping her off about an impending attack, about which–so Shlaim insists–he knew nothing. After Rabat, Hussein continued to offer a Palestinian federation. He swallowed Kissinger’s unwillingness to initiate a disengagement-of-forces agreement on the Jordanian front, and then the insult of Sadat, Begin and Carter not inviting him to Camp David in 1978 (while taking his cooperation for granted). He kept his borders with Israel and Syria quiet as the focus of violence moved to south Lebanon, where the PLO had established a new state-within-a-state. He stayed out of the 1982 Lebanon war. He then cooperated with US Secretary of State George Shultz’s efforts to restart the peace process in 1983.

It will be hardest for the Israeli peace camp to look back on Hussein’s last gambit, the abortive agreement in London negotiated with Shimon Peres in 1988. Peres was then foreign minister in a unity government led by Likud’s most intransigent prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. Like Camp David, the agreement called for direct negotiations based on land for peace; and it anticipated reintroducing Jordanian forces to territories already wracked by resistance to Israeli occupation. Peres promised to resign and fight for the “Jordanian option” if Shamir–an advocate for Greater Israel–refused to budge. Shamir did not budge, and Peres did not resign. This was the last time Hussein presumed to act on behalf of the Palestinians, and the last time he trusted Peres.

From here on, it was all endgame. After trying (and failing) to broker a peace between Saddam and the Americans in 1991, Hussein supported the Madrid conference, making room for a PLO delegation. When the backdoor Oslo talks produced a provisional deal between Israel and the PLO, Hussein hastened to cut a deal of his own, in October 1994. Then Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and Hussein made an emotional appearance at his funeral. He had high hopes for Benjamin Netanyahu, which were quickly dashed. When Netanyahu and Arafat bogged down at the Wye River negotiations in October 1998, Hussein–sick with cancer–flew from the Mayo Clinic to help seal the deal. His last big move, made with uncharacteristic spite, was choosing his soldier son over his intellectual brother to succeed him. On February 7, 1999, he died.

Shlaim presents this last cascade of moves dispassionately. But one indelible image suggests what, with Hussein’s untimely death, was lost. On March 13, 1997, a deranged Jordanian soldier shot and killed seven Israeli schoolgirls and wounded six others at the Naharayim crossing point in the north; the girls were on an outing to the “Island of Peace,” a park on the Jordan-Israel border, recently restored to Jordanian sovereignty. This was an unexpectedly hopeless time in Israeli-Jordanian relations, for Netanyahu had just shrugged off the passionate letter Hussein had sent him protesting continuing Israeli settlement activity. Yet Hussein, in Madrid on a state visit, immediately flew home; three days later, he made an unprecedented trip to Beit Shemesh, the girls’ town. The king went to the houses where the families were mourning. He entered on his knees.

Many Arab commentators accused him of submission, Shlaim recalls. Hussein commanded that each of his visits be shown on Jordanian television. “If there is any purpose in my life,” he told one of the families, “it will be to make sure that all the children do not suffer the way our generation did.” This was hardly an original sentiment. It was also not an ignoble one from a leader who was little more than a child in mourning when his rule began.

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