Interview

With King Hussein of Jordan

August 7 1978
Interview

With King Hussein of Jordan

August 7 1978

With King Hussein of Jordan

Interview

For 26 years King Hussein of Jordan has walked a political tightrope. The Hashemite monarch has survived countless attempts on

his lite, including one at the age or 15 when an assassin’s bullet grazed a medal on his chest, seconds after the murder of his grandfather, King Abdullah, by Arab extremists in Jerusalem. In 1967 Hussein suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Israelis who seized and occupied the West Bank with its population of more than 800,000 Palestinians. Three years later his kingdom was again threatened, this time by militant Palestinian guerrillas who openly defied his authority, using Jordan as a base for staging raids against Israel. Hussein acted swiftly, brutally crushing the Palestinian resistance with the full might of his crack Bedouin army in the Black September War of 1970. At the Rabat Arab summit conference in 1974 his fellow Arabs stripped him of his right to represent the Palestinians, recognizing the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Today Hussein is still in a weak political position. Not only must he placate his Saudi benefactors to the south, but he must appease the militant Sovietbacked Syrian regime to the north.

The strain of political turmoil has taken its toll on the greying, 42-year-old monarch, though his private life has been brightened by his June marriage to 26-year-old American Lisa Halaby. (Hussein’s third wife, Queen Alia, died in a helicopter crash last year.) He exudes a natural charm and sincerity, surprising visitors by greeting them at the door of his office with a warm handshake. Hussein appeared shy, with the air of an inquisitive student about him, as he was interviewed for Maclean’s by Toronto writer and broadcaster Anne Wright Howard.

Maclean’s: When President Anwar Sadat made his historic trip to Jerusalem, the whole world was waiting for some response from Jordan, the Arab state which has the longest border with Israel. Yet you didn't commit yourself one way or the other. Hussein: Well, to be very frank with you we were completely stunned by the Sadat move, not in terms of our desire for a just and durable peace, but by the timing and the context. Just a very short while before, we were trying to organize a joint Arab delegation to go to Geneva, and all of a sudden the visit was announced and then took place. It certainly took us a bit of time to cope with the abruptness of what happened. On the other hand we had many questions which are still there. Is Israel going to withdraw from all the territories occupied in June of 1967, recognize the

Israel can have territory or she can have peace, but she can’t have both

legitimate rights of the Palestinians on Palestian soil, the right of self-determination? We in Jordan tried and tried and tried and we never got any answer that was encouraging. I did not feel, before Sadat’s move, that anything had changed. And even after the initiative, which I termed courageous, these questions have not been answered. Israel is still as adamant as possible regarding occupied territories. Also, we did move. I went to Damascus and I went to Cairo. I tried to somehow bridge the gap. I was in touch with all Arab states and travelled around extensively, sent my envoys everywhere. Sadat was then hoping to call for an Arab summit or be involved in one and tell all those involved on the Arab side, this is what we have been able to achieve, this will be the end of the process.

This has never happened. So there was nothing much that Jordan could do beyond what Jordan did.

Maclean’s: If Jordan had added public support to President Sadat’s initiative, would it have placed more pressure on Israel to be more conciliatory?

Hussein: I doubt it very much. In any event, we did say of the initiative itself that it was a courageous step, and we wished it every success. After all, Egypt has been involved in the Palestinian problem, Egypt has suffered greatly as a result; it was their show. We had no credentials really to get involved. If we were involved, involved toward what end? No one recognizes any rights for Jordan. Anything we might have done would have been premature and emotional and probably not constructive. Maclean’s: When President Carter and President Sadat discuss the future of the West Bank, they generally refer to it in terms of a state federated with Jordan. Yet we haven’t heard what Jordan’s reaction would be. How would you feel about having the West Bank federated with your country?

Hussein: It was in our minds many years

ago. We proposed such an idea to be the subject of a referendum, an expression on the side of the Palestinians themselves, under conditions of total freedom. Israeli occupation has to cease. The area could be placed under international auspices, but the people must exercise their right of selfdetermination. If they choose to federate with us, which is a possibility because of the very strong links that exist between us, we would welcome that. We believe we are one family. The problem is the rights of Palestinians on Palestinian territory. Maclean’s: Then you would favor an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank?

Hussein: I am in favor of whatever the Palestinians choose. The overwhelming majority are reasonable people, who want to live in peace, with dignity, and enjoy their rights on their territory. If they are given the chance to express themselves, they will come up with something that all of us can live with very happily. I am not prepared to say what they should say. It is for them to say it.

Maclean’s: People on the West Bank, Palestinians, always claim that the PLO is their sole legitimate representative, and that if they did have an independent state the PLO would be their leaders.

Hussein: The PLO stands for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. If the territory is liberated, then the PLO ceases to exist. The people themselves must have the right to determine their future, under different conditions. The PLO is there so long as there is occupation.

Maclean’s: But could you accept an independent state with PLO leadership? Hussein: I will only say that I have tremendous faith in the overwhelming majority of the Palestinian people, and I am not ruling out the possibility that there may be some links with Jordan. I think they are natural, they are strong, they are there. Maclean’s: Among Arab states, is there a lot of interrelation on issues such as the future of the West Bank?

Hussein: I wish there were more. I am sure that there will be, eventually. Obviously we have similar backgrounds, ties of religion, culture, language, interests. When the Arab revolt started and my great-grandfather was involved with it at the beginning of this century, it was for one, united, free, progressive Arab world. The area has tremendous wealth, human and material resources. Logic would dictate that Arabs come together, not emotionally but in every way possible.

Maclean’s: After President Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem last year, there was tremendous optimism, both in Israel and the Arab world. Now, with negotiations uncertain, I sense more pessimism, more despair, even talk of another war. Do you feel pessimistic yourself?

Hussein: I’ve always been an optimist. I must say I have no reason to be so at this stage. I wish I were wrong. I really don’t know where it will all end. What is the final shape of Israel in the minds of those

responsible in Israel? If expansion is the goal, then we must brace ourselves for attempts to change conditions on the ground once again and talk about new realities, as has happened so many times in the past. The choice has always been there. Israel can have territory or she can have peace, but she can’t have both, and if she chooses territory then obviously peace will be denied us. Many have argued that a strong Israel would be a reasonable, moderate, confident Israel. Israel is as strong as

The Palestinians have suffered so much their only choice has been to take up arms

ever now and I don’t see any tendency toward moderation. It is sad. It is tragic. But this is reality. I’m afraid that a wonderful opportunity to make progress toward peace may be lost for a long, long time to come. It also implies that the Arabs are responsible to a certain extent, because they must take another look at themselves, must reorganize themselves and build up their strength in every field—I’m not speaking specifically of a military situation—so that Israel can shrink back to a reasonable size in their own minds. The way I see things gives me no hope that we are close to peace and in point of fact makes me uncertain about the future. Maclean’s: If the Arab world is stronger militarily, will it make it easier to negotiate?

Hussein: Not only militarily, but in many other ways. The Arab world is facing threats from many directions that make it imperative that it build its stance. It’s becoming an important part of the future of the world as a whole. The missing ingredient in the whole equation right now is Arab strength, and we feel it even more

here. We are, after all, not Israel in terms of the help we receive from the United States, and although we appreciate all the help we have received, we do not receive help similar to what others may receive from the Soviet Union. We stand on the longest front. If overrun, the entire world is exposed, east of Suez, to serious danger. It’s more than we can cope with, really, to continue to build our military self and at the same time try to improve the lot of our people. But we are caught in this situation and we have to keep trying. Israel is a tremendous arsenal of arms and weaponry at this stage and we don’t know what the Israelis think Israel should be, sooner or later. If we knew what the map of Israel is in their minds, maybe we could appreciate more what the danger is, but in any new eruption in this area I am sure we will again be in the forefront.

Maclean’s: The Israeli prime minister, Menachem Begin, now refers to the West Bank as Judea and Sumeria. Do you fear that he may have further intentions on the East Bank as well?

Hussein: I think he does. I think they always have. After all, they consider this East and West Bank as part of the area included in the Balfour Declaration, and the promises made at that time. My greatgrandfather is buried in Jerusalem. He gave up everything. He was sent to exile because he did not acquiesce in regard to denial of the Palestinians of their rights on their homeland. But so long as they’re there, they are going to do their very best to defend it. The dangers are there and I think the ambitions are there, at our expense. Maclean’s: Is the current impasse due to Mr. Begins personality, his personal experience, or do you see it as a continuation of Israeli foreign policy?

Hussein: I see it as a continuation of Israeli foreign policy in regard to the Middle East. I think others may be a little cleverer in hiding their real intentions, but I really see no basic change. After all, if there were a difference we could have arrived at peace in 1967. But almost 11 years later we are still talking about declarations of principles and rewriting Resolution 242, as if that is, excuse my saying so, such a big deal at this late date. What is needed is much more than that. Maclean’s: Talking with Palestinians on the West Bank and here in Jordan, one can’t help but notice an increasing frustration. Educated, intelligent people are saying that they will have to resort to arms, that the only solution will probably be bloody.

Hussein: Well, I suppose if there is no progress toward peace, people will have to begin to think of other means, but in that regard I think that the Israelis have the upper hand for a long, long time to come. However, if the chance of ever arriving at a solution peacefully is lost, then obviously, sooner or later, no matter how long it takes, the eventual tragedy is going to be a very serious one, for Arabs and Jews and maybe the world as a whole.

Maclean’s: Has Jordan initiated any type of discussion with Israel at all?

Hussein: No. But on the other hand, Jordan has asked time and again the same questions. Jordan has always been ready to shoulder its responsibilities; before ’73, before the Geneva summit, and even after. I have no bad feelings in terms of my conscience that I didn’t try everything and anything possible. Unfortunately, I failed.

Maclean’s: Is Jimmy Carter trying to bring Jordan into the discussions at this stage?

Hussein: It is probably premature, and I believe that our friends in the United States understand our position. What is the Israeli position? It is still one that insists on retaining positions on Egyptian soil. And I think this may continue. So it is still extremely premature for us to consider, or for anyone to consider, that they have the right to invite us into something that hasn’t even got started yet. We would like to know what the end of the road is going to be. If it is total Israeli withdrawal from all these territories occupied in June of ’67, Palestinians exercising the right of self-determination, the establishment of peace once and for all; if these are agreed to be the objectives, if we know that we are headed that way, then we are ready to do what we can and we will not hesitate. But vagueness we can’t take anymore, 11 years after the adoption of Resolution 242 by the UN Security Council.

Maclean’s: In Israel, the main concern is security. What guarantees could be given to assuage their fears?

Hussein: What guarantees can be given us to overcome the real fears that we have of being threatened at any moment? Security is really a state of mind. It’s a feeling on both sides that they have arrived at a solution that they can live with. It is not positions on the grounds that really matter; it’s a feeling when peace is established that there is something there that is worthwhile building. Jerusalem can become the symbol of peace for all times to come. The rights of all must obviously be guaranteed. The city must be that of all believers in God. It can’t be under the control of one or the other side.

Maclean’s Do you mean that Jerusalem would be an international city?

Hussein: In the context of peace and implementation of 242 and 338, we feel that Jerusalem is not a security problem. Jerusalem is a problem of occupied territory. Israel has occupied territories around Jerusalem now that amount to a considerable part of the occupied West Bank. This can’t be justified under the heading of security. The Arab part of the city of Jerusalem must return to Arab soverignty, and when we speak of Arab sovereignty we speak of the right of Moslems, Christians and Arabs. It can never be totally under the sovereignty of Israel. There would be no real peace in that event. If this is recognized, Jerusalem can be the meeting place. It can be the open city. It can be the city of

believers in God. It can be the city of peace.

Maclean’s: A number of Israelis, ordinary citizens, have said, “Look, if the Palestinians on the West Bank say, 'Give us the West Bank as a homeland, we’ll live in peace together, ’ then 99 per cent of the Israeli population would probably be in favor of that. But they say, the PLO says, ‘Give us the West Bank and then we will turn our rockets onto Israel, and drive the Jews into the sea.’ ” When they hear

Our lives are not important; the future, and the lives of those to come, are

this rhetoric, how can you expect them to ever negotiate?

Hussein: They exaggerate the PLO’s position, attitudes. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians remain silent, because they have no option; nothing that they can live with, nothing that they can accept has been offered them as yet. That’s why I say we must give them the right of self-determination. When Arab states accepted Resolutions 242 and 338, they accepted the existence of Israel, the right of Israel to live in peace and security.

Maclean’s: Why hasn’t a moderate Palestinian leadership emerged on the West Bank? Why do Palestinians on the West Bank let the PLO in Beirut speak for them?

Hussein: Because it’s a question of what are they offered—self-rule under Israeli guns and control? There is no alternative. No option has been given the overwhelming majority of Palestinians. In fact, they have suffered so much that the only answer is to pick up arms to try to hit back wherever possible. It’s a natural reaction. Take Begin himself and his background. Why was it right then and wrong now? What rights have the Palestinians been given that

people can complain that they have misused these rights?

Maclean’s: Do you think we’ll see it in our lifetime, a Palestinian homeland? Hussein: Well, if we don’t see it in our lifetime, the results will be disastrous to the world.

Maclean’s: Are the Americans losing face now in the light of recent events? Hussein: If nothing really tangible emerges, they will lose a lot of credibility in this area, of course. It’s fairly obvious. My own inclination has been that they have a tremendous role to play, but they are not alone. Others should join them in their efforts as well. Specifically, the Soviets. Maclean’s: Would you like to see more of an active role by the Soviet Union in the current peace process?

Hussein: Yes, I would in fact. Very much so. The major powers have a responsibility, at least in terms of world peace and the interests of mankind. One can’t say that the Soviets don’t exist in this area, in terms of their influence, in terms of their interest as well. For any peace to be durable, it would be more meaningful if the major powers were involved.

Maclean’s: On a personal level, is it very frustrating to be one of the principal players in such an important chess game?

Hussein: I feel the weight of responsibility very, very heavily. Our lives are not important. The future is what is important, the lives of those who are to follow. If there were a way to make it easier for those who are to follow us, one would have the feeling that one had accomplished something in all the years and all the turmoil. But there are factors beyond one’s control. The main one right now, obviously, is Israel. There are others in the Arab world as well. It is sad when you can see in advance how things are going to go, time and again, and you are helpless to prevent them.

Macleans: If you hadn’t been born a king, would you have gone into politics? Hussein: I don’t know, as far as politics is concerned; in my book it is common sense and logic and a lot of soul-searching. Part of my problem is that people ask us what is your minimal position and your maximum position. We don’t have a minimal and a maximum position. We have one position, and this is one thing that the rest of the world apparently doesn’t understand. Maclean’s: The international press is continually predicting events in the Middle East and then calling things massive failures. How does this affect negotiations at a top level?

Hussein: I doubt if it does, certainly not in this country and not in my case. I’ve always tried to be as frank and as open as possible with all our friends who have come to seek the truth in this area, and in any event I have no right to comment on that. I think Mrs. Meir did say that both Mr. Begin and President Sadat probably were eligible for the Oscar awards, but I don’t think I’m in that league as yet. ó