Opinion

The Real Story Behind the Israeli-Jordanian Peace Deal

Efraim Halevy, who was intimately involved in contacts between King Hussein and the Israeli government, responds to an article by Aluf Benn

The signing of the Israeli-Jordanian peace deal in 1994.
Wilfredo Lee / AP

I wish to respond to the article by Aluf Benn, in which he interviewed Avi Gil, on the occasion of the publication of the latter’s memoir. In that piece, Benn described the involvement of Shimon Peres in some of the dealings that led up to the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan in 1994. I will respond to specific claims made in the article and note additional events related to the subject.

In the wake of the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House in September 1993, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met secretly with King Hussein of Jordan at his palace in Aqaba, where he proposed that Israel and Jordan sign a peace accord of their own. That meeting did not go well, and the fact that it took place became public immediately afterward, because the prime minister’s plane had a mechanical failure and it took off from Eilat in broad daylight, visible to all.

About two weeks later, King Hussein passed on to us a letter that he had received from London, signed by Lord Victor Mishcon, a Jewish-British politician and attorney considered close to both the king and Peres. The letter stated that the contacts between Israel and Jordan had hit a snag, and it was proposed that Foreign Minister Peres travel to Jordan to pursue a solution to the situation. The king wanted to know what the prime minister’s response was. The document was forwarded to the prime minister, who asked the foreign minister in for a conversation. I was not present, but as a result of that meeting it was agreed that Peres would go to Jordan under conditions of strict confidentiality, and that I would accompany him and take part in his meetings. The date chosen for the meeting was November 2, the date of local elections in Israel, so that the minister’s absence from his office would not attract any special notice.

Peres was received in Amman by Crown Prince Hassan and his aides, and over several hours a variety of subjects were discussed, relating to a peace treaty and ancillary requests to be negotiated. At the meeting, there was extensive discussion of Peres’ idea of holding a major international conference in Amman to which the heads of many multinational corporations and public figures would be invited, along the lines of a similar conference that had been organized in Morocco following the Oslo Accords. Also discussed in a general manner were the form that a return of territories by Israel to Jordan would take, as well as Israeli efforts to aid Jordan in having its substantial foreign debt forgiven.

It was decided that all these subjects would be addressed at a follow-up meeting, which would take place about six weeks later at the prince’s residence on the east bank of the Dead Sea. The subjects were enumerated in a paper that was then initialed by Peres and the prince.

Most of these subjects did not appear in the Washington Declaration document that, according to Aluf Benn in his article, was a “copy-paste version” of the Peres-Hassan paper. The Peres-Hassan paper was a list of “action items” for immediate attention, rather than the sections of a peace accord. The first part of the Washington Declaration was written by me, based on points that I received from the prime minister, whereas a subsequent detailed section was based on a paper that the head of the Israeli delegation, Elyakim Rubinstein, sent to me via his personal driver, who was dispatched for said purpose from Eilat to Tel Aviv. The Rubinstein document came into my possession in July 1994, eight months after the Peres visit to Amman.

In two English-language biographies of King Hussein, one by Prof. Avi Shlaim of the University of Oxford, the other by Nigel Ashton, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics and Political Science, it was explicitly stated that the Peres paper had been signed by Prince Hassan.

Following the lengthy conversation between Peres and Hassan, the king joined in the meeting at the prince’s residence. At one point, Peres requested a one-on-one meeting with the king, and they closeted themselves in the library for a conversation that went on for about 45 minutes. When he emerged from the meeting, Peres told us, “It’s all been agreed,” without offering any details. I have no knowledge of any other meeting taking place that night.

Peres and Gil, disguised, on a secret visit to Jordan, 1993

No disguise

The next day, Peres refused to put on his disguise — hat, glasses and mustache — only consenting to do so in response to the incessant pleas of the Jordanian liaison officer. Just before arriving at the bridge, Peres unexpectedly pulled off the right side of the mustache, but at the crossing point no one even noticed. The sensitivity in Jordan back in those days was pronounced. Less than a week later, the country was to have a general election, one in which the Islamic Brotherhood movement was permitted to take part.

Peres told me there was no need for me to accompany him when he reported on the visit to Prime Minister Rabin.

About two days later, the prime minister called me and asked about what had been said in the conversation between the king and the foreign minister. I answered that I did not know, as I had not been present. A few weeks later, I received word from Jordan that the king wished to meet with me that very same evening in Aqaba. He was about to arrive there from Alexandria, following a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

We met that night in Aqaba. I encountered a highly agitated king. He told me that he’d received a letter from Bill Clinton in which the U.S. president congratulated him for agreeing to sign a peace agreement with Israel. Clinton then proposed to the king that he take advantage of his planned visit to the United States for a medical check-up a few weeks later to sign the finalized treaty in Washington.

The king said that the letter had been delivered via the routine diplomatic channels to the Jordanian foreign ministry. A great deal of embarrassment had been caused to him, he said, because he was compelled to respond to Clinton and to refute what was stated in the letter. At this juncture, he told me that during his meeting with Peres, the Israeli foreign minister had tried to persuade him to agree to the leasing by Israel of Jordanian lands, to which he replied to the foreign minister that that was out of the question — the leasing of holy Arab land is a sin, according to the Islamic faith. Later, the king told me that he’d received a letter from [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat, informing him that it had been agreed upon between him and Israel that Jerusalem was an issue for the Palestinians and Israel alone to work out, and that Jordan would have no status in Jerusalem. This deeply angered him.

After some thought, I passed on a message to the king that I could not undertake to report on the meeting to the prime minister. I said that I would be placed in a situation of “my word against the word” of the foreign minister, and that there was no possibility that the prime minister could choose to accept my report over the sweeping denial of the foreign minister, should that happen. The only way I could fulfill this mission would be if he permitted me to present the documents as is. Following some consultation, my request was met, on condition that the material be presented solely to the prime minister. That is what was agreed upon, and that is what happened.

Clinton’s letters to Hussein and Hussein’s answer to Clinton are mentioned by Nigel Ashton in his book, and he states as his source the Jordanian royal archive. A letter from Clinton to Hussein bears the date November 15, 1993, and Hussein’s response to Clinton bears the date November 18, 1993, a difference of three days. Ashton was unable to find Arafat’s letter in the king’s archive. I have never met Nigel Ashton, nor have I ever spoken with him.

From this moment onward, the prime minister ruled that the foreign minister would henceforth be excluded from any further involvement in the negotiations.

Efraim Halevy.
Yanai Yechiel

Terror attacks

Three months passed, during which I fell ill and underwent cardiac catheterization. Upon my recovery, my meeting in London with the king in February 1994 was canceled due to the death of his mother in Switzerland. Just before Israel’s Independence Day, the king invited me to visit the kingdom secretly, together with my wife, and after receiving authorization, we spent four days in Jordan as guests of the king at the palace compound in the capital. In lengthy conversations, the king made it clear that he’d decided to move ahead on negotiations for a full peace with Israel. He elaborated on his positions in great detail.

As we passed over the bridge on our way back to Israel, we heard about two serious terrorist attacks that occurred simultaneously at the central bus stations in Afula and Hadera, causing numerous casualties. I decided — mistakenly — to delay my report until after Independence Day. On Independence Day, the understandable rage in Israel over the acts of terror swelled, and an accusatory finger was pointed at Jordan in particular, based on the claim that the attackers had come from the Hamas bases in Jordan.

That afternoon, the prime minister telephoned me and asked me to inform the king that he was about to convene a special press conference at the Defense Ministry together with the foreign minister, in which they would condemn Jordan in especially harsh terms. I tried to explain to him that I had an important message from the king, but he angrily responded that I was to do precisely as he had ordered. Uncustomarily, he told me that his acting military secretary, Col. Amos Gilad, would be telephoning me a few minutes later, and that I was to read out to him word for word the message that I was going to send to the king. Gilad did call, and I did as I had been instructed.

I have reason to believe that the entire sequence had been worked out during a conversation between Rabin and Peres, and under pressure from the foreign minister. The Jordanians telephoned me and strongly requested that the press conference be postponed, saying that the king would not at all understand what happened. They related that the king had undergone major dental work, and that he was therefore not up to date on what was happening. And that he would not understand why the prime minister was disregarding the conversations I’d held with him in Amman.

The press conference took place, and I came in the following day to deliver my report. The prime minister listened intently to my report without interrupting. Casting a serious glance at me, he said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” and then added a broad smile. We quickly arranged to have a message dispatched from the prime minister to the king, in which he related to my own conversations in Amman with strong affirmation and in an optimistic tone. The king responded immediately, and from his response it was clear that he was noticeably relieved.

I will conclude with a report on an event that took place on the White House lawn on July 25, 1994, as President Clinton was reading out the complete text of the Washington Declaration. When he reached the section stating that the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan was to be recognized as having status as pertains to the Islamic holy sites in Jerusalem, the audience reacted with a roar of astonishment and elation. Altogether coincidentally, I was sitting in the third row of those invited to the ceremony, behind a senior member of the entourage of Minister Peres, who turned around toward me and angrily asked, “How dare you write such a thing in today’s declaration! That is completely contradictory to what we agreed to with the Palestinians.” I asked him, “And what did you agree to with the Palestinians?” His response was to sit down in his seat, turning his back on me.