During his long reign (1953-1999), King Hussein of Jordan was one of the most dominant figures in Middle Eastern politics and a consistent proponent of peace with Israel. This is the first major account of his life, written with access to his official documents and with the cooperation (but not approval) of his family and staff, and also extensive interviews with international policy makers.
For more than forty years, Hussein walked a tightrope between the Palestinians and Arab radicals on the one hand and Israel on the other. Avi Shlaim reveals that, for the sake of dynastic and national survival, Hussein initiated a secret dialogue with Israel in 1963 that encompassed more than one thousand hours with Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, and countless others. Shlaim reconstructs this dialogue across battle lines from previously untapped Israeli records and the firsthand accounts of key participants, and makes clear that it was Israeli intransigence that was largely responsible for the failure to achieve a peaceful settlement between 1967 and 1994.
At Hussein's memorial service at St. Paul's Cathedral, the Prince of Wales hailed him as "a man amongst men, a king amongst kings." Lion of Jordan illuminates the triumphs and disappointments, the qualities and character of this extraordinary soldier and statesman, and significantly rewrites the history of the Middle East over the past fifty years.
Ruler of a weak country surrounded by stronger powers in the cutthroat environs of the Middle East, financially dependent on foreign sponsors, precariously riding herd on the nationalist ambitions of Jordan's Palestinian majority, Hussein eked out a long reign (1953-1999) through very unleonine policies of caution and restraint. Historian Shlaim (War and Peace in the Middle East) finds much to admire in his subject's character and statecraft. Hussein was an autocrat, the author allows, but a benign one, whose resolute crackdown on Palestinian extremists in the 1970 civil war was necessary to save Jordan from chaos. Much of the book is taken up with a detailed chronicle of the Middle East peace process, centering on Hussein's decadeslong negotiations, both secret and open, with Israel; in Shlaim's telling, Israel comes off badly, and Hussein emerges as the embodiment of Arab moderation, his sincere initiatives stymied by the alleged intransigence and perfidy of Israeli leaders who preferred land to peace. Shlaim's stinging critique of Israel might stir controversy, but his comprehensive, nuanced account of Hussein's life illuminates the tragic complexities of Middle East politics. Photos. (Sept. 9)
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September 07, 2008
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Excerpt from Lion of Jordan by Avi Shlaim
1. The Hashemite Heritage
King Hussein of Jordan was a man of slight build who possessed a powerful personality and immense political stature. He was in every respect except the physical a towering figure whose courage helped to earn him the popular title "Lion of Jordan." Hussein bin Talal was born on 14 November 1935 in Amman. He ruled over Jordan as an absolute monarch from 1953, when he was only seventeen years old, until his death in 1999 at the age of sixty-three. Throughout his long reign Jordan was in the eye of the storm of Middle Eastern politics, constantly caught up in the turmoil and violence of the region, and Hussein himself emerged as a major player in regional and international politics. He was also a leading actor in the Arab-Israeli conflict, one of the most bitter, protracted and intractable of modern times. Hussein's cardinal objective was the stability and survival of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan, and in this he was successful against all the odds. His other major objective was to find a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but in this his record is much more controversial. Hussein's supporters see him as a man who consistently pursued a strategy of peace and ultimately succeeded in bridging the historic gulf by concluding a peace treaty with Israel. His critics take a radically different view of his legacy of accommodation with Israel, seeing it as a surrender and a betrayal of the Palestinians. In a region where the past is so powerful and ever-present, the question of whether Jordan's rulers have betrayed or championed the Palestinians has been at the heart of a heated, ongoing dispute. It is one of the tasks of this book to explore the realities behind these two positions thoroughly for the first time.
Whatever opinion one takes of Hussein, the starting point for understanding his foreign policy is the Hashemite legacy. The Hashemites are an aristocratic Arab family whose ancestral home was in the Hijaz in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula, along the Red Sea littoral. They are descendants of the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima, whose husband Ali was fourth of the caliphs. The family took its name from Hashem, the great-grandfather of the prophet and a prominent member of the Kureish tribe. The Hashemites were religious, rather than temporal, leaders, the guardians of the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina during the centuries of Ottoman rule. The title "sharif of Mecca" passed to the next in line within the family. In Arabic the adjective "sharif" means distinguished, eminent, illustrious or noble, and the title "sharif" is reserved for the descendants of the prophet.
In the early twentieth century, however, the Hashemites sought to translate their noble lineage into political power and gradually assumed the leadership of an Arab nationalist bid for freedom from the Ottoman Empire. The break between the Hashemites and their fellow Muslim overlords in Istanbul began with the Young Turks' Revolution of 1908. The Young Turks were a group of officers, officials and intellectuals who ruled the Ottoman Empire from the time of the revolution until the end of the First World War. The shift they brought about in the ideology of the ramshackle empire from Islam to Turkish nationalism displeased and disturbed the Hashemites. The decision of the Young Turks to join the war on the side of Germany then created an opportunity for a Hashemite alliance with Britain in accordance with the Arab adage "My enemy's enemy is my friend." This dramatic renversement des alliances transformed the Hashemites from Arab aristocracy into actors on the international stage.
Hussein bin Ali (1852-1931) was an unlikely candidate to lead a nationalist Arab revolt against Ottoman rule. He was fifty-five by the time he was appointed sharif of Mecca in 1908. His main concern was to secure his own position and that of his family, and he was robust in resisting Ottoman attempts to encroach on their traditional authority. There is no evidence to suggest that he was attracted to the ideas of Arab nationalism before the war: on the contrary, by temperament and upbringing he was a conservative and inclined to view nationalist ideology as an unwelcome innovation, inconsistent with the principles of Islam. Nor was the Hijaz a particularly fertile ground for the growth of nationalism. A traditional society, bound by religious and tribal identities, it was short on the kind of intellectuals and radical army officers who are normally to be found in the vanguard of nationalist movements.
Hussein bin Ali had four sons: Ali, Abdullah, Faisal and Zaid. The two middle sons were more politically ambitious than the other two and they played a major part in persuading their father to assume the leadership of the Arab Revolt. Faisal was the principal commander of the Arab Army, and his association with the legendary T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") helped to spread his fame beyond Arabia. Abdullah, however, was the chief architect, planner, schemer and driving force behind the revolt. As Faisal himself confided to Lawrence, his liaison officer and the most renowned chronicler of "the revolt in the desert," the idea of an Arab uprising against the Turks was first conceived by Abdullah. As a small boy Abdullah had acquired the nickname "Ajlan"-"the hurried one"-and he remained true to this name for the rest of his life.
A profound faith that the Hashemites were destined to rule over the entire Arab world inspired Abdullah throughout a long and eventful political career that started in the Hijaz and later saw him amir of Transjordan and finally king of Jordan. Born in Mecca in 1880, Abdullah received his education and his military training in Istanbul and in the Hijaz. Between 1912 and 1914 he was the deputy for Mecca in the Ottoman parliament, where he promoted his father's interests with energy and enthusiasm. It was during this period that Abdullah was exposed to ideas of Arab nationalism and began to link his father's desire for autonomy in the Hijaz to the broader and more radical ideas of Arab emancipation from Ottoman rule. In February 1914 Abdullah returned to Mecca by way of Cairo, where he met Lord Kitchener, the British minister plenipotentiary, and tentatively explored the possibility of support in the event of an uprising against the Ottomans. Soon after his return home, Abdullah became his father's political adviser and foreign minister.
It was only gradually, and under constant prodding from Abdullah, that the conservative sharif of Mecca raised his sights from the idea of home rule in his corner of Arabia inside the Ottoman Empire to complete independence for all its Arab provinces from Yemen to Syria. While Abdullah became convinced of the necessity to break up the empire at the beginning of 1914, Hussein would become a separatist only after he had tried and failed to attain his limited political objectives within the framework of the Ottoman Empire. A further difference, one of ideology, separated father from son: Hussein's idea of nationalism was based on the traditional concept of tribal and family unity whereas Abdullah's was based on the theory of Arab pre-eminence among Muslims. Whatever the source of their aspirations or their ultimate aims, the indigent rulers of the Hijaz province had to have the backing of a great power to have any chance of success in mounting an open rebellion against the mighty Ottoman Empire. That power could only be the British Empire, which had its own designs on Arabia. This posed a problem. The guardian of the Muslim holy places in Mecca could not easily bring himself to embrace a Christian power in his struggle against fellow Muslims. Divided counsels within his own family did nothing to ease his predicament. Faisal emphasized the risks and pleaded for caution; Abdullah wanted to play for high stakes and urged his father to raise the standard of an Arab revolt. Hussein warily plotted a middle course: he continued to negotiate with the Turks while making secret overtures to the British. Turkish rejection of his demands for a hereditary monarchy in the Hijaz made him tilt further in the direction of Britain. The outbreak of war in August 1914 made the British more receptive to these overtures, and to Abdullah fell the task of weaving together the threads of this unholy alliance against the Sublime Porte.
Between July 1915 and March 1916 a number of letters were exchanged between Hussein and Sir Henry McMahon, the British high commissioner in Egypt, discussing the terms under which Hussein would ally himself with the British. In his first note Hussein, speaking in the name of "the Arab nation," demanded British recognition of Arab independence in all of the Arabian peninsula and the area covered by present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and part of Iraq. To this claim, which reflected Abdullah's grandiose territorial ambitions, was added a request for British approval of a proclamation of an Arab caliphate of Islam. Britain accepted these principles but could not agree with Hussein's definition of the area claimed for Arab independence. In his note of 24 October 1915 McMahon excluded certain areas: "The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be excepted from the proposed delimitation." After a year of desultory negotiations, Hussein undertook to join the Allies by mounting a rebellion against the Ottomans. The correspondence, conducted in Arabic, was shrouded in ambiguity, vagueness and deliberate obscurity. It reveals a continuous thread of evasive pledges by Britain and opaqueness, if not obtuseness, on the part of Hussein. It is difficult to tell how much Hussein was moved by dynastic interests and the desire to extend the power of his family and how much by the wish to represent the Arabs in their pursuit of independence. It is clear, however, that his dream was to found an independent Hashemite kingdom on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The British failed to spell out the difference between Hussein's ambition and the extent of their commitments. In particular, the McMahon-Hussein correspondence was imprecise as to whether Palestine was to be included in the area designated by Britain for Arab independence. Conflicting interpretations of this omission were to plague Anglo-Arab relations after the war.
In the spring of 1916 Hussein proclaimed what is often called the Great Arab Revolt, which holds pride of place in the chronicles of the Arab nationalist movement. It is seen as the dawn of a new age, as the first serious Arab bid for independence and unity. Some scholars, however, have questioned the link between the revolt and Arab nationalism. They point out that the original terms on which the revolt was launched had little to do with Arab nationalism. Islam, according to this view, featured much more prominently than nationalism in its original aims. All nationalist movements dwell on the past, and in the case of the Arabs the past was necessarily Islamic. William Cleveland has categorically asserted that the revolt "was proclaimed in the name of preserving Islam, not in the name of Arabism or the Arab nation."