Hussein reigned as king of Jordan for almost half a century. Yet, despite the important role he played in Middle East politics, he has received relatively scant attention in the scholarly literature. Fortunately, this lacuna was removed with the publication last year of two illuminating biographies by British historians: Avi Shlaim, a native of Baghdad who grew up in Israel, studied at Cambridge, and has served for many years as professor of international relations at Oxford University; and Nigel Ashton, senior lecturer in the Department of History at the London School of Economics.
Each volume reflects substantial research efforts. Shlaim interviewed 76 Jordanian officials, including the king and members of his immediate family. He also interviewed 14 Israeli officials and several American and British diplomats and mined previously untapped Israeli archival records. Ashton began his research in 1999; in 2007, he was granted by King Abdullah II unlimited access to Hussein’s correspondence files in the Royal Archives. He also interviewed 20 Jordanian officials, including King Abdullah and Queen Noor. While the two biographies overlap in coverage, they complement each other. Whereas Shlaim focuses primarily on Hussein’s quest for Middle East peace, with heavy emphasis on his initially secret and eventually open contacts with Israel, Ashton pays greater attention to Hussein’s policies toward neighboring Arab states.
The two biographers agree on Hussein’s foreign-policy orientations and personal attributes. Both maintain that in his dealings with Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world and the great powers, Hussein was always motivated by an abiding commitment to the survival of the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan. They also note that Hussein espoused a unique brand of Arab nationalism that opposed foreign control of the Arab nation and asserted the destiny of the Hashemite family to provide leadership for the Arabs. This brand of nationalism and Hussein’s lifelong desire to reach a modus vivendi with Israel were major sources of conflict between Jordan and its Arab neighbors. Furthermore, both authors blame Israeli intransigence for Hussein’s failure to attain Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank after the 1967 war in return for a full and comprehensive peace with Jordan. They also agree that internal opposition to the 1994 peace treaty with Israel frustrated Hussein’s efforts to foster greater democracy and political freedom inside Jordan, leading instead to greater authoritarian and repressive rule. Lastly, both authors attribute Hussein’s ability to survive in his small, poor and militarily weak kingdom to his strong sense of personal empathy and pragmatism in dealing with internal and external foes.
The least understood and most fascinating aspect of Hussein’s foreign policy was his long and initially covert relationship with Israel. According to Shlaim, the idea of engaging in direct talks with Israel was first suggested to Hussein by Prime Minister Samir Rifai in early 1956. However, instead of bilateral and direct communications with Israel, Hussein decided in April 1957 to use the United States as a conduit to secure Israeli agreement not to intervene militarily against Jordan as he began cracking down on domestic political opponents. That marked the beginning of a de facto alliance between the two countries that lasted, with two notable exceptions, until the signing of the peace treaty in 1994.
The tacit alliance took several forms. For example, in early 1958, the British government relayed to Hussein intelligence from the Israeli attaché in London regarding an assassination plot by Egyptian agents against the king. In mid-July 1958, Israel permitted the use of its airspace by British and American planes carrying paratroops and fuel to Jordan in an effort to buttress Hussein’s regime against severe domestic opposition. Shlaim and Ashton confirm that the first direct contacts began in mid-September 1960, when Hussein dispatched Lt. Col. Emil Jamian to Jerusalem, where he met General Chaim Herzog, Israel’s director of military intelligence, and secured assurances from Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that Israel would refrain from taking advantage of Jordan’s exposed western front, as the king was contemplating a retaliatory attack against Syria.
The first of 45 secret meetings between Hussein and Israeli officials took place with Yaacov Herzog, deputy director general of the foreign ministry (brother of Chaim), on September 24, 1963, at the home of Emanuel Herbert, Hussein’s doctor in London. Hussein emphasized the need for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and expressed admiration for Israel’s achievements, while Herzog assured the king of Israel’s commitment to Jordan’s independence. Several factors prompted Hussein to establish direct dialogue with Israel. According to Shlaim, he was persuaded that Israel was an established fact and that he would therefore need to come to terms with it sooner or later, especially because both countries shared a common interest in maintaining quiet along extensive and poorly demarcated armistice lines. Also, both faced a common foe in the form of a nascent radical Palestinian nationalism and were politically aligned with the West during the cold war. Believing that Israel exerted substantial influence over American Middle East policy, Hussein also hoped that his amicable relationship with Jerusalem would help Jordan solidify its closer ties with the United States.
The de facto alliance was further cemented during another secret Hussein-Herzog meeting in London on December 19, 1964. Herzog informed Hussein that Israel had discreetly lobbied Congress for additional economic aid to Jordan, and Hussein pledged that he would not permit the stationing of foreign troops on Jordanian soil or deploy American tanks on the West Bank. Hussein reiterated these commitments in a meeting with Foreign Minister Golda Meir in Paris in September 1965.
The Israeli-Jordanian détente was temporarily shattered by two military encounters: the November 13, 1966, Israeli attack against the Jordanian village of Samu and the 1967 war. Given previous assurances by Israel that it would respect Jordanian territory, Hussein felt deeply betrayed by Israel following the raid that inflicted numerous civilian and military casualties in retaliation for recent murders of Israelis by Fatah guerrillas based in Jordan. Although Israel eventually apologized for the attack in a letter from Herzog to Hussein, the king became convinced that the encounter at Samu was the first step toward an Israeli takeover of the West Bank.
Jordan’s participation in the June 1967 war was undoubtedly the greatest calamity of Hussein’s reign, resulting in the loss of the West Bank and its occupation by Israel. Both biographers agree that Hussein made several serious blunders before the outbreak of war on June 5. First, by joining the Egyptian-Syrian treaty of mutual defense on May 30, Hussein agreed to place the Jordanian army under the command of Egyptian General Abdel Munim Riad. Second, Hussein also agreed to the entry of troops from Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia into Jordan. Third, he in essence relinquished to General Riad the decision to commit Jordan to war. It was the general who actually ordered the firing of Jordanian artillery on West Jerusalem — on the basis of false intelligence from Abdel Hakim Amer, the deputy commander of the Egyptian armed forces, about decisive Egyptian battlefield victories on the morning of June 5. Fourth, Hussein failed to verify the false information fed to Riad from Egypt.
Ashton is more charitable in his treatment of Hussein during this crisis. He claims that the king had found out about the planned Israeli attack against Egyptian airfields and passed that information to Nasser in two telephone calls during the last three days before the outbreak of war. Nasser, however, decided to ignore the warnings. Ashton further argues that Hussein was confronted by the unenviable “choice between accepting the embrace of Arabism and accepting the embrace of Israel.” Shlaim agrees, noting that “Hussein went to war not because he was threatened by Israel but because he feared that he would be denounced as a traitor to the Arab cause if he did not.”
During the following six years, high-level Jordanian and Israeli officials held 32 secret meetings, most of them in London and some in Wadi Araba, south of the Dead Sea. Hussein participated in 19 sessions and offered his interlocutors a full peace in return for Israeli withdrawal to the lines of June 4, 1967, leaving open the possibility of minor reciprocal adjustments of the borders. Both authors agree that these talks failed to resolve the conflict because Israel had initially offered nothing in return for Hussein’s proposal. When Prime Minister Meir finally presented a plan in June 1972 that enabled Israel to keep control over the unpopulated areas and a growing number of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the king found it totally unacceptable. Shlaim suggests that Hussein nevertheless continued to engage the Israelis due to fear and hope: fear that Israel might continue to expand into Jordan east of the river and hope that the United States would pressure Israel to relinquish the West Bank. Ashton claims that Israel had no intention to negotiate seriously with Jordan, dragging out the talks to gain time and reassure Washington by creating the impression that it was actively seeking peace.
Ashton and Shlaim disagree about what transpired at a secret meeting between Hussein and Meir held at Mossad headquarters a few days before the outbreak of the 1973 war. Ashton claims that Hussein had received from his intelligence sources details of the Syrian battle plans, including the precise date of the attack, and that he revealed this information to Meir. She, however, ignored this intelligence, fearing that Hussein was deceiving her with disinformation. Shlaim, on the other hand, maintains that Hussein did not warn Meir of the impending war but merely emphasized the dangers of the continuing diplomatic deadlock. Clearly, Hussein had learned from the 1967 debacle. He made sure that the single armored brigade the Jordanian army had deployed on the Golan front was involved in only one skirmish with the Israel Defense Forces.
Of the 21 covert meetings between Israeli and Jordanian officials during the following two decades, the session between Hussein and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on April 11, 1987, was by far the most significant. It produced the London Agreement, which envisioned direct and bilateral negotiations and a peace settlement, based on UN resolutions 242 and 338, with the Palestinians participating in a joint delegation with Jordan. A golden opportunity was again missed by Israel when Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir vetoed the plan. The Israeli-Jordanian alliance survived the continuing diplomatic impasse during the following seven years.
According to Shlaim, at a meeting held in London between Shamir and Hussein on January 5, 1991, weeks before the start of Desert Storm, Hussein agreed to disallow the deployment of foreign troops on Jordanian soil. Hussein also relayed to Saddam a warning that Israel would retaliate with all its might for an Iraqi attack with unconventional weapons against Israel. Shlaim attributes the king’s helpfulness to his deep respect for the People of the Book and his ability to understand and appreciate the sources of Israeli insecurity.
Hussein’s decision of July 31, 1988, to sever Jordan’s legal and administrative ties with the West Bank and the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO paved the way for the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty in October 1994. The king decided to conclude the treaty for several reasons: fear of Palestinian radicals and Israeli extremists, who wanted to turn Jordan into an alternative Palestinian state; the need to secure the role of the Hashemite dynasty as the guardian of Muslim holy places in East Jerusalem; a desire to participate in any resolution of the Palestinian refugee problem; and a dire need to secure American economic and military assistance. Ashton argues that Hussein signed the peace treaty with Israel mainly out of fear of the Jewish state as a threat to his kingdom, noting, “Hussein’s handling of relations with Israel was founded on the old adage: keep your friends close, and your enemies closer still.”
Hussein’s relationship with and policies toward the Palestinians also underwent several transformations during his reign. Ashton notes that, like his grandfather, Hussein held a paternalistic attitude toward the Palestinians, believing that it was in their best interest to become part of a Hashemite kingdom that included the West Bank. Following the formation of the PLO in 1964, the king opposed the emergence of a separate Palestinian identity and the establishment of an independent Palestinian power base on the West Bank. In September 1970, Hussein unleashed his army against various Palestinian Fedayeen groups that had ensconced themselves as a state within a state on the East Bank, resulting in a bloody civil war and the eventual expulsion of some 3,000 guerrillas from Jordan.
In an effort to regain a modicum of control over the territory he had lost to Israel in June 1967, Hussein proposed on March 15, 1972, a federation between the West Bank and Jordan, with East Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian region. The plan was rejected by Israel and condemned by the Arab world. In February 1986, Hussein and Yasser Arafat agreed to a plan envisioning a confederation of the West Bank and Jordan. But the king failed to get Arafat to agree to the three U.S. conditions for PLO participation in an international peace conference: acceptance of resolutions 242 and 338, recognition of Israel and renunciation of terrorism. Hussein eventually decided to disengage Jordan from the West Bank on July 31, 1988. In essence, the king determined that he was no longer willing to negotiate over the status of the West Bank with either Israel or the PLO.
According to Shlaim, Hussein was taken completely by surprise when Arafat told him about the Oslo accords. He believed that the Palestinians ended up with an uneven bargain and feared that Israel had decided to abandon its de facto partnership with Jordan in favor of a formal one with the PLO. That fear, in turn, provided Hussein with an added impetus to conclude the peace treaty with Israel.
Hussein’s foreign policy toward neighboring Arab states was marked by constantly shifting alliances, reflecting the need to balance his more powerful foes off against each other. In late 1955, in response to Egyptian efforts to topple his regime, Hussein tilted toward joining the U.S.-sponsored Baghdad Pact but was prevented from doing so by a split cabinet and widespread riots instigated by Egypt, Syria and Saudi Arabia. To counter the union between Egypt and Syria in early 1958, he formed a brief union with Iraq. It lasted until the coup on July 14, 1958, that killed his cousin, King Faisal II, ending Hashemite rule in Iraq.
Hussein never abandoned hope of restoring Hashemite patrimony in Baghdad. He planned a military attack on Iraq in early 1959, but called it off due to strong British objections. In September 1960, Hussein planned an attack against Syria in retaliation for the assassination of Prime Minister Hazza Majali. That plan was aborted due to heavy British and American pressure. To counter the threat of socialist regimes in Iraq, Syria and Egypt, Jordan aligned itself with Saudi Arabia in the 1960s. In 1967, in part due to the Israeli attack on Samu, Hussein joined the Egyptian-Syrian treaty of mutual defense. Following the 1967 war, he became President Nasser’s closest ally in the Middle East. However, in April 1979, he severed diplomatic relations with Egypt following Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel. These relations were restored in September 1984.
In the early 1980s, Hussein forged a close personal relationship with Saddam Hussein, whom he strongly admired as the leader who could restore lost pride and dignity to the Arab world. According to Ashton and Shlaim, Hussein was totally surprised by Saddam’s decision to invade Kuwait in August 1990. Both authors marshal considerable evidence to refute charges attributed to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Hussein had known in advance of the attack and was secretly allied with Saddam during the conflict due to Jordan’s heavy dependence on Iraqi oil. In fact, Hussein opposed the invasion, toiled to promote a coordinated Arab diplomatic resolution, strongly opposed Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, and abided by the UN sanctions against Iraq. Ashton faults Hussein for misjudging Saddam’s character, overestimating his own ability to mediate a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, and undermining Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait by his verbal declarations of sympathy for Iraq.
Reflecting his desire to recapture Baghdad for the Hashemite dynasty, Hussein established secret contacts with Iraqi opposition groups in London shortly after the end of Desert Storm. In 1996, he supported a CIA-backed plot to overthrow Saddam, a flawed plan that never materialized.
Hussein’s relations with Washington fluctuated between warm and cool. In late 1956, Jordan began seeking American economic and military assistance to replace the loss of British aid in the wake of the impending abrogation of the Anglo-Jordanian treaty of 1948. The initial request for aid was rejected; very few U.S. officials believed that Hussein would last long on the throne. It was only in April 1957, after Soviet and Egyptian agents had infiltrated the Arab Legion, leading Hussein to dismiss the government and impose martial law, that the United States provided $20 million in economic and military aid to Jordan under the Eisenhower Doctrine.
In December 1966, after the Israeli attack on Samu, Hussein revealed the existence of the secret channel with Israel to Findley Burns, Jr., the American ambassador to Jordan, and Jack O’Connell, the CIA station chief in Amman. The Johnson administration then rewarded Jordan with $5 million in military equipment. Following the 1967 war, the White House was kept informed of the secret Israeli-Jordanian contacts by Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin. The Johnson administration urged Hussein to negotiate directly with Tel Aviv, but it refused to pressure Israel to offer Jordan terms that the king could accept. In mid-1969, Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Sisco was informed that Hussein was ready to enter into direct negotiations with Israel if he could be provided with prior assurance from Washington that the status of Jerusalem was negotiable. The Nixon administration did not respond to this feeler. In late February 1973, Hussein informed Henry Kissinger of his willingness to negotiate directly with Israel, and proposing a plan that would have permitted Israel to maintain outposts along the Jordan River. Kissinger, however, did not abide by the king’s request to offer this plan under American auspices.
Hussein’s frustration with Washington continued after the 1973 war. In a meeting with Kissinger on January 19, 1974, Hussein proposed that Israel and Jordan withdraw their military forces five miles back from the Jordan River, enabling Jordan to establish civil administration in the area vacated by Israel, including Jericho. Kissinger displayed little interest in the proposal because he was determined to conclude a disengagement agreement between Israel and Egypt. According to Shlaim, Kissinger secretly applauded the designation in October 1974 of the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, as this would ensure that no negotiations would take place over the status of the West Bank. His priority was Israeli-Egyptian disengagement.
Both authors note that Jordan was mentioned 14 times in the 1978 Camp David Framework for the West Bank, despite its not having been invited to participate in the summit nor consulted about the role and responsibilities assigned to it under the accords. Hussein informed Jimmy Carter that a separate Israeli-Egyptian peace would not be acceptable to Jordan and the rest of the Arab world, but his prescient warning fell on deaf ears. The Carter administration cut economic aid to Jordan as punishment for its opposition to the Camp David accords.
The flow of American economic and military aid to Amman was resumed by the Reagan administration, but it was cut off again during the Gulf crisis of 1990-91 — as punishment for Hussein’s alleged support of Saddam. During the negotiations that culminated in the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, Israel responded to Hussein’s request by sending Efraim Halevy, the deputy head of Mossad, to Washington to argue the case for resumption of American assistance to Jordan. Both Halevy and Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich also successfully lobbied for the forgiveness of the $700 million in Jordanian debt.
Shlaim and Ashton skillfully weave into their political narratives interesting details about Hussein’s personal life: his four marriages, his difficult relationship with his brother Hassan, the search for a suitable successor, and his fatal bout with cancer. When he died on February 7, 1999, at age 63, Hussein left a mixed legacy. On the positive side, he elevated Jordan to an important role in regional and international politics and adroitly survived with the support of the army and effective intelligence services many internal plots and repeated attempts by Egypt and Syria to overthrow him. According to Shlaim, more than any other Arab leader, Hussein had a better understanding of the reasons for Israel’s security fears. This enabled him to cooperate with Israel, initially covertly and then openly, on a whole range of political, military, economic and humanitarian issues.
Yet his failure to prevent Jordan’s entry into the 1967 war was a disastrous error, and the warm peace he envisioned after signing the 1994 peace treaty with Israel never materialized. Hussein hoped that peace with Israel would help ease Jordan’s massive poverty and high unemployment. For several reasons, including Israel’s decision to restrict the entry of Jordanian goods into the West Bank, the economic benefits turned out to be meager. Furthermore, peace with Israel proved incompatible with greater democracy and freedom inside Jordan. Hussein also badly misjudged Saddam and mistakenly believed that Likud Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a better partner for peace than Shimon Peres.
Both authors do justice to this remarkable statesman, whose commitment to peacemaking and personal kindness were not sufficiently appreciated during his own lifetime. The two volumes are highly readable and easily accessible to generalists and specialists alike.