Text size

"Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace" by Avi Shlaim, Allen Lane, 720 pages, 30 pounds sterling

The figure of Hussein bin Talal captured the imagination, and often the sympathy as well, of observers around the world - including in Israel - who followed his stormy career from his coronation in 1953, when he was still an inexperienced adolescent, to his agonizing death from cancer, in 1999. And indeed, his character was sui generis: the scion of a dynasty that traces its roots to the Prophet Muhammad, a king who radiated Arab nobility, the supreme commander of the colorful Arab Legion, a statesman who maneuvered skillfully between stormy crises in the Arab world, and a courageous leader who defeated all his domestic rivals.

He headed the "most stable unstable regime." Many a time it seemed that Jordan's fate had been decided, and many leaders - including those from supportive Western countries, and even Israel, which needed it as a buffer state to the east - were ready to eulogize the kingdom.

Two of the crises that buffeted the king and brought him to the verge of a final fall deserve special mention: the crisis of 1957-1958, when he was threatened by the nationalist camp from within and Nasserist forces from without; and the crisis of 1970, when Palestinian organizations practically succeeded in taking over the country and Syrian tanks invaded Jordan to assist them. In both cases, Hussein donned his military uniform, gathered his loyal Bedouin soldiers around him and defended his kingdom courageously and successfully.

Many times his Arab "brethren" tried to assassinate him, and each time he escaped by the skin of his teeth. To an Israeli diplomat who sought sympathy for Israel for being a country surrounded by enemies, Hussein is said to have commented: "Jordan's situation is worse: It is surrounded by friends."

Hussein also survived the consequences of the two biggest mistakes of his career: joining Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1967 Six-Day War; and moving closer to Saddam Hussein on the eve of the Gulf War, in 1990. He explained these two moves as being caused by a lack of alternatives: Had he not entered the war in 1967, he would have lost not only the West Bank of the Jordan River, but also the East Bank; and had he joined the coalition against Saddam, he would have lost his people's support. Whatever the validity of these explanations, in both cases he succeeded in recovering. The loss of the West Bank enabled him to solidify his state on the East Bank and spared him from a destructive Palestinian undertow, and the Americans' wrath died down when, in 1991, he succeeded in helping them get the Madrid peace process on track.

Was survival itself Hussein's main achievement, or perhaps even his only one, as some have recently maintained? In my opinion, far from it. He inherited, from his grandfather Abdullah, a traditional, amorphous political entity that was ambitiously aspiring to become "Greater Syria," and left behind a well-formed and orderly state that in its internal organization and in the quality of its inhabitants' lives is among the most advanced in the Arab world. Hussein nurtured a Jordanian national identity that has also been adopted by many citizens of Palestinian origin. The regime he established did not, of course, fully deserve to be considered a democracy, and Hussein knew how to penalize severely those who tried to undermine him, but he used his power sparingly and Jordan never became a police state.

Hussein was the only leader in the Arab world who granted citizenship to Palestinian refugees, and despite the differences between Transjordanians and Palestinians, he was able to establish a reasonable modus vivendi between them. During the years when the Arab world was swept by a revolutionary Nasserist wave, which was backed by the Soviets, Hussein succeeded in maintaining Jordan as an island of moderation, pragmatism and pro-Westernism.

Contrary to the assessments that prevailed in his day, Hussein did not wait for the Syrians, but rather jumped without them onto the peace bandwagon and signed an agreement with Israel. In my many conversations with him, the king often said that peace with Israel was the crowning achievement of his life. During my posting in Amman (1995-1997), Hussein was already aware of his illness and the question of what his legacy would be occupied his thoughts. The close cooperation that developed between him and Yitzhak Rabin made him hopeful that he would be able to bequeath to Jordan a warm peace that would lead to prosperity for its inhabitants. After Rabin's assassination, which he lamented with tears in his eyes, one disappointment followed another. Israeli promises did not materialize, and several Israeli actions hit him very hard (for example, the attempted assassination of Hamas leader Khaled Meshal on Jordanian soil). Hussein, however, did not allow these crises to threaten the peace, which, as he often told me, "was irreversible."

Many biographers

In light of all this, it is little wonder that Hussein has attracted many biographers. (A special place belongs to his own account of his life, whose title, "Uneasy Lies the Head," he took from Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 1.") The latest, Avi Shlaim, has produced the most comprehensive, thorough and up-to-date account of the late king's life. The author, a professor of international relations at Oxford University, gathered a great deal of material for his research and held interviews with 65 knowledgeable personalities from Jordan, Israel, the United States and Britain. An important source for his work was the detailed interview he conducted with King Hussein in 1996 (an edited version of which was published in The New York Review of Books in 1999, after his death). The interviews add information and color to Shlaim's book, but sometimes it also seems that they trip him up - about which more below.

Whereas the first third of the book is devoted to a discussion of a broad range of Transjordanian/Jordanian topics, the latter part is dominated by the subjects of relations with Israel and with the Palestinians, and hardly anything more is said about Hussein's dealing with his country's domestic problems. Shlaim gives much space to Hussein's secret meetings with Israeli heads of government and other personalities. These meetings have longed ceased to be classified, and the Hebrew reader has learned a lot about them from Moshe Zak's book "King Hussein Makes Peace" (Bar-Ilan University Press, 1996).

Shlaim enlarges the canvas and offers interesting information about the substance of the talks, especially on the basis of notes left behind by the late Yaakov Herzog, who was the first to meet Hussein, when he was director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry. The author lists 55 meetings, between Herzog's first talks, in 1963, and the conclusion of the peace treaty, in 1994, also presenting them to the reader in table format. In fact, the number of meetings was even greater - although Hussein was apparently exaggerating when, in 1989, he noted that he had had 150 such meetings.

Shlaim presents the many chapters in the history of Jordan-Israel relations with great descriptive and analytical skill. He does not ignore the shadows in the king's character - such as his exaggerated emphasis on personal relations, his limited understanding of economic matters and his reliance on foreign intelligence services - but he consciously portrays him with deep sympathy.

At the same time, he is sparing with sympathy when it comes to Israel and its affairs, and despite his evident desire to be as objective as possible, scattered expressions of one-sidedness crop up in his narrative. For example, he relates that his "sympathy with [Hussein] as a person was enhanced by the discovery that his efforts to work out a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Middle East [were] met, for the most part, with ... dishonesty and deviousness on the part of the Israeli [policy makers]."

No one disputes that Golda Meir deserves criticism for her simplicity and inflexibility, but Shlaim goes beyond that in writing that her attitude toward Jordan was colored by "complacency and conceit," even though the book's discussion of her conversations with Hussein paints a different picture. There are other examples of partiality in the book, though their number is not large.

Shlaim is usually regarded as one of the "New Historians," and indeed in the book there are echoes of views typically attributed to that school. Shlaim finds it appropriate to repeat the claim that "the Balfour Declaration was one of the worst mistakes in British foreign policy," and he reiterates his thesis to the effect that the 1948 war was preceded by a conspiracy between Abdullah and Golda Meir (then Meyerson) that determined that the Arab part of Palestine would be joined to the Hashemite Kingdom. Historical criticism has already undermined the credibility of this thesis, but Shlaim digs into it again in this book, and in order to confirm it he chooses to present what he apparently regards as the most conclusive proof - the interview he held with diplomat Yaacov Shimoni, who at the time of the Meir-Abdullah meetings served as an Arabist in the Jewish Agency's political section.

The problem with relying on this evidence is that the interview took place 35 years after that meeting, and Shimoni's statements are not congruent with the reports written up in real time by participants in the meeting: Elias Sasson, of the political section of the Jewish Agency; Ezra Danin, of Haganah [the pre-independence army of the Jews] intelligence; and Golda Meir herself - all of whom testified that the Israeli side was committed to the United Nations partition plan.

Shlaim is aware of the problematic nature of relying on information obtained in interviews and argues, rightly, that as long as the archives in the Arab world are not accessible for research, there is a broad basis for using this source. However, it appears that he is not sufficiently aware of researchers' natural tendency to be overly attached to information that has been elicited personally, and sometimes exclusively, from high-ranking individuals and to attribute to it excessive credibility. Two examples will suffice.

Discussing the crisis that erupted between Jordan and Israel due to the expropriations of lands in East Jerusalem, Shlaim bases his position on an interview with Jordanian diplomat and minister Marwan Muasher, and asserts that what brought Rabin to cancel the expropriations was a letter from King Hussein. Muasher's version does indeed reflect the way in which the Jordanians like to see the end of that story - but the truth is different: Rabin rejected all the pleas, from home and from abroad, to change his mind. I myself came especially from Amman to inform Rabin about the severe damage the affair had caused to relations, but he did not budge. The real end, which is reliably documented, came from a completely different source: the right-wing opposition in the Knesset hastily joined a no-confidence motion by the Arab factions and Rabin was forced to cancel the expropriations in order to save his government.

Shlaim's discussion of the secret meeting, at a Mossad installation, between Hussein and Golda Meir, at which he ostensibly warned Israel 11 days before the outbreak of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, is largely based on his interviews with three of the four main participants in that meeting: King Hussein; his prime minister, Zeid Rifai; and the director general of the Prime Minister's Office, Mordechai Gazit (Meir, of course, was no longer alive). Hussein told Shlaim that he was not privy to the war plan and had no knowledge about its timing; Rifai asserted strongly that Hussein could not have warned about the war, because he would not have betrayed the Arabs for Israel's sake; and Gazit said the king had not come at all to warn Meir of an approaching war but for a different purpose.

The catch is that each of Shlaim's three informants had a transparent agenda: Hussein and Rifai wanted to cleanse themselves of the suspicion that they had acted as "collaborators" with Israeli intelligence, and Gazit did not want Golda Meir to be blamed for another blunder. Shlaim would have done better had he noted that meticulous studies of the subject came up with different results: It has been found, for example, that Hussein had warned of a war even prior to that meeting, and even though there were Israelis who were skeptical about Hussein's alert, most of them understood his message as warning of a war, and that this, incidentally, is also how Hussein described his meeting to agents of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

All of this should have led Shlaim to make a distinction between two things: Though Hussein did not tell the Israelis the details of the war plan, because he was not informed about them, he did know very well that a war was imminent, and at the meeting that he initiated in haste, he definitely did warn Israel of it. Naturally, Hussein's motive was not to serve Israeli intelligence but rather to prevent the eruption of a war that was liable to endanger his kingdom.

Shimon Shamir is professor (emeritus) of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University. He served as Israel's first ambassador to Jordan.