On King Hussein and the Search for Peace: An Interview with Nigel Ashton

Nigel Ashton’s latest book is entitled King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life.

Jonathan Mok: Why and when did you get interested in the life of King Hussein?

Nigel Ashton: I’ve been interested in King Hussein ever since I was a PhD student back in the 1980s working on British and American policy in the Middle East during the Suez crisis. I was fascinated from an early stage by the way the King successfully negotiated a series of dangerous challenges to his position and the way in which he managed his relations with other powers in the region.

After King Hussein died in February 1999, I felt it was a good time to start researching a biography of him. Up to that point there had been no full biography written with the benefit of access to his papers and interviews with his close friends, family members, and confidants. Thereafter I made more than a dozen trips to Jordan between 1999 and 2007, carrying out a range of interviews with former political leaders and his close family members, including his wife Queen Noor and his eldest son, King Abdullah of Jordan.

Jonathan: King Hussein seemed never to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric to condemn the Israeli occupation and Jewish lobby in the United States. In fact, he was believed to be good terms with leaders such as Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. How did the King view Jews and the Jewish state?

Nigel: As far as King Hussein was concerned, the first crucial step that had to be made before one could contemplate making peace was to empathize with those on the other side of the conflict. He felt that he had to show that he understood and appreciated the historical tragedy of the Jewish people in all its parts before peace would be possible. His strategy to achieve this goal involved the offering of endless reassurance to Israelis

Perhaps the best example of this came in March 1997 when, after a Jordanian soldier had gone mad and killed several Israeli schoolgirls on a field trip at Baqoura on the border between Israel and Jordan, the King flew to Israel and personally visited the bereaved families. His gesture of kneeling before them and offering his personal condolences had a profound effect in Israel, turning a tragedy into an event which helped cement relations between the two states. So, King Hussein was aware of the hopes and fears of Israelis and did his best to reassure them.

Jonathan: How did King Hussein influence his son, King Abdullah?

Nigel: I would say that [King Abdullah] has inherited much of his father’s shrewd grasp as to how to navigate in troubled political waters. He has built on his father’s close relations with the United States, but made sure that he has also remained close to the Arab middle ground on key issues such as the peace process with Israel.

King Abdullah has also improved relations with Saudi Arabia, which had been strained during the final years of King Hussein’s reign. He has been more inclined to focus his attention on key domestic problems as well, especially economic and administrative development, which his father tended to delegate to others. So, while the two monarchs have much in common, King Abdullah has inevitably brought a fresh perspective to some key issues.

Jonathan: While King Hussein was well-recognized for his diplomatic successes, he was also criticized for failing to modernize the country. Can we talk more about that?

Nigel: Hussein himself would have seen the achievement of peace with Israel as his greatest achievement. But, in the final three years of his life, he was already becoming frustrated at what he saw as the failure to translate this into a broader peace in the region. Although he blamed all parties for the failure, he was particularly critical of the role of the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu whom he believed had allowed the chance for a comprehensive peace, pursued by Yitzhak Rabin, to slip away.

From 1989 onwards the King pursued a program of domestic liberalization which opened the political system up to the opposition. However, this process had largely halted by the mid-1990s. The irony was that the making of peace with Israel, which was domestically unpopular, contributed to the slow down in domestic political reform. Despite this, King Hussein was certainly the most benevolent, open and fair-minded Arab leader of his generation. He dealt with opposition more by trying to co-opt it, or channel it, rather than by simply repressing it.

Jonathan: Finally, in your opinion, what lessons Arab leaders can take from the late King Hussein?

Nigel: I think the key lesson is the need for dialogue. Across the decades from the early 1960s when the King began to talk covertly to Israeli representatives he sought to resolve the problems of the region through debate, discussion and dialogue. Of course, this approach involved inevitable frustrations. In the aftermath of the 1967 war, when the King pressed hard for a broader peace settlement, his approach did not find a receptive audience in the region. But he persisted in his efforts which eventually bore fruit in the shape of the Jordanian-Israeli peace Treaty in the 1994.

The second lesson is how to deal with political opponents. For sure, the King’s regime had authoritarian aspects, but he was notoriously lenient in his treatment of political opponents, even those who had plotted against his person and his throne.

The final lesson concerns the exercise of power. Hussein understood that Jordan was a weak state in terms of its military and economic resources. But he consistently exercised disproportionate influence both through his moral authority and his subtle grasp of the hopes and fears of others. Empathy was ultimately his most useful tool in regional politics.

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