In 1959 King Hussein visited Ethiopia, where Emperor Haile Selassie gave him a gift: two lion cubs. Hussein raised them in his courtyard and came every morning to see how they were doing. Hence his nickname, "Lion of Jordan." Avi Shlaim, a professor of history at Oxford, recently published a biography of the king and notes, accurately: Not everyone called him "Lion of Jordan" - only his admirers. Shlaim borrowed the epithet for the title of his book (published by Allen Lane, London); he too is one of the monarch's admirers.
The book's content does not justify such reverence. It documents a man whose primary, perhaps only, achievement was the fact that he died of cancer and not from an assassin's bullet. There is no doubt who would win if Hussein were taking part in the Channel 10 reality show "Survival." If he did anything good for the citizens of his country, there is no mention of it in the highly sympathetic biography, which is based, among other sources, on interviews with the king himself, his family and his confidants, but for the most part not on Jordanian state documents.
Shlaim, born in Baghdad and raised in Israel, writes a great deal about the relationship between Hussein and Israel. They originated back in 1963, at the king's initiative. Most of the details about this subject have been published in the past. Hussein did not deny the contacts, but it was important for him to emphasize that he did not betray the Arabs.
Amid all this, it would be interesting to know whether Hussein warned Prime Minister Golda Meir about the impending attack on Israel in 1973. The two met in Tel Aviv shortly before Yom Kippur. Shlaim asked Hussein and two other people who took part in the conversation - one a Jordanian, the other an Israeli, Mordechai Gazit, one of Meir's advisers - about the meeting. The three had a common interest: If there were no concrete warning, then Hussein did not betray the Arab cause and Meir was not derelict in her duty. They told Shlaim that there was no warning. Hussein said he had spoken about the danger of a war, but could not provide Meir with concrete details about the plans of the Egyptians and the Syrians, simply because he knew nothing about them. Shlaim chose to believe him.
Hussein, in fact, had good cause to save Israel, because Israel had answered his call for help when the Palestinians tried to oust his regime in 1970. In this connection Shlaim elaborates on an interesting disagreement that arose in Israel: Golda Meir, Yigal Allon, Abba Eban and Yitzhak Rabin wanted to rescue Hussein; Ezer Weizman, Rehavam Ze'evi and Ariel Sharon suggested letting him go down. Shimon Peres, who was later identified with the "Jordanian option," described Hussein as an "amateur king." In a note that was retained by the director general of the Prime Minister's Office at the time, Yaacov Herzog, Peres wrote that there was no chance of saving the king and any attempt to do so would only tarnish Israel's reputation.
Shlaim of course supports the rescue of his hero, but in retrospect this is a matter for reflection: If Yasser Arafat had managed to seize control in Jordan, it would have been possible to make peace with him and give him back the West Bank, too - there were relatively few settlers at the time. Shlaim, though, believes Israel could have made peace with Hussein, but that it wanted to keep the West Bank. Shlaim admires Hussein for making peace; he does not praise him enough for being able to rid himself of the West Bank and its Palestinian inhabitants. Now Israel is stuck with them; maybe that's the king's sweet revenge.
Shlaim knew Hussein as a decent, courageous man who projected warmth and charisma. He also had a sense of humor. On one occasion he told Israelis that Ronald Reagan had asked him about the fishing prospects in the Dead Sea. Arabs like this, kings like this, are beloved in Oxford. Shlaim therefore tends to forgive Hussein the failures of his rule, including the mistake he made in June, 1967, and shows understanding for his tyranny as well. It is only the removal of Crown Prince Hassan, in a sneaky way that does not befit a lion-king, that Shlaim finds difficult to explain. That was a most un-British affair.
An anti-Semitic legend that dates back to 1934 relates that Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of American culture, proposed expelling the Jews from the United States. According to the story, this was in 1787, during the meeting of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Franklin reputedly explained to his colleagues that the Jews were dangerous and therefore the Constitution must bar them from residing in the United States.
The story recalls "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." It is not as well known, but like them has no basis in fact and like them occasionally crops up. In her blog, the American historian Deborah Lipstadt, an expert on Holocaust deniers, cautions that the story about Franklin's anti-Semitic speech is being disseminated again, most recently by a Muslim preacher in Syria. She directs readers to the Web site of the Anti-Defamation League, which refutes the canard.
The great Benjamin Franklin did not say it, but General Ulysses S. Grant, also great, tried to do something about it. An order Grant issued in the Civil War was intended to expel the Jews of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. That was in December, 1862. Jewish leaders rushed to the White House and spoke to President Lincoln, who annulled the decree. His attempt to expel the Jews did not prevent Grant's election as the 18th president of the United States.
Haile Selassie and Dr. Ruth
When George Bush enters the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in about two weeks, he will be able to step on his name. If he so desires, he can also step on his father's name, though he might feel more like stepping on Hillary Clinton's name. The hotel has recently engraved in its main lobby the names of 120 famous people who have stayed there in the past 75 years. More than half of them are presidents and prime ministers, among them Chaim Weizmann, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. One emperor, Haile Selassie, and three kings, among them Hussein, stayed at the hotel. So did one hair stylist: Vidal Sasoon.
The signatures are embossed on a gold-decorated marble strip. I stood next to it, careful not to step on the names, and turned yellow with envy: As a boy who collected autographs, I had managed to get the autograph of Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, who stayed at the hotel in 1959, and with a certain effort I might be able to get the autograph of Dr. Ruth even now. I know someone who even personally knows Wolf Blitzer of CNN, whose autograph is also engraved on the hotel floor. And there are Edmund Allenby, Arturo Toscanini, Marc Chagall, Jascha Heifetz and Simone de Beauvoir - all in all, a pretty impressive collection. And Ofra Haza, too.
The American Colony Hotel is cultivating a similar heritage. It is a more romantic hotel and has more writers among its guests, including Selma Lagerlof and Graham Greene. Allenby, Herbert Samuel, Churchill and Haile Selassie, too, stayed at both hotels, as did Sting and Shimon Peres. But Lawrence of Arabia was only at the American Colony, as was Amos Gitai.
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