A tale is told of the young King Hussein asking one of his elderly Bedouin advisers: "Tell me, what is the secret to living a long life?"
"It is simple, your majesty," the man replied, "never set on a journey through the desert, unless you are certain your camel can bear its burden."
As the world's longest surviving leader, the Jordanian monarch appears to have heeded whatever good advice he heard. He has masterfully maintained a tightrope walk between stronger neighbors.
The key to his remaining on the throne for more than 41 years, ruling over a small, poor, mainly desert country, has been Hussein's ability to maneuver politically and militarily among the conflicting interests of Israel, the Palestinians, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria. At the same time, he has managed to remain staunchly pro-British and pro-American. He has also been particularly cautious about his peace negotiations with Israel. Hussein is well aware of the risks of peace making--he witnessed the 1951 assassination of his grandfather, King Abdullah, by a Palestinian extremist angered by that king's readiness to negotiate peace with Israel.
However, by meeting last week at the White House with Premier Yitzhak Rabin and declaring, in his address to Congress, "the state of war between Israel and Jordan is over," Hussein abandoned his traditional noncommittal stance.
Hussein's bold move is even more dramatically illuminated by the recent wave of terrorism--inspired most probably by Iran and executed by Muslim fundamentalists who oppose the peace. The bombs that killed 100 people in Buenos Aires, two-dozen aboard a Panamanian airliner, failed in Bangkok and destroyed the Israeli embassy in London, were directed against Israeli and Jewish targets. However, they can soon turn against the king and his regime.
During the first decade of his rule, Hussein was fascinated by Arab nationalism as preached by President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt. But the association brought calamity upon the king and his country. In 1967, carried away by the Egyptian leader's promises of an easy victory, Hussein ignored Israeli pleas to stay out of the growing crisis. The king instructed his armed forces to join the Egyptian and the Syrian armies and attacked Israel in the Six-Day War. This cost him dearly: Jordan lost the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
In the 27 years since, the king and his advisers realized time and again that Israel could be a pillar of a geostrategic support for Jordan. Hussein and his top officials have more "Israeli hours" than any other Arab ruler--including the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, the first Arab statesman to sign a peace treaty with Israel, 15 years ago.
The 30 years of clandestine diplomacy enabled the two countries to cooperate on matters of health, agriculture, education, commerce and environment. Moreover they created a "de facto" peace, keeping their shared 200-mile border quiet. Yet the secret meetings couldn't produce a formal treaty. Jordan demanded that all of the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem should be returned to its control. Israel refused.
Regardless, the most important field of cooperation between the two countries was intelligence and defense. Israeli and Jordanian intelligence experts have traded information about Palestinian groups--which both sides perceive as a security threat. Israeli intelligence also occasionally tipped the king about plots against him, devised by his Syrian, Saudi and Palestinian enemies.
The most visible Israeli contribution to the existence and stability of Jordan was in 1970. Led by the Palestine Liberation Organization, Palestinians, who make up more than 50% of Jordan's 4.5-million population, rebelled against Hussein. Yasser Arafat's guerrillas hoped to turn Jordan into a springboard in their battle against Israel. At the same time, President Hafez Assad, who has never abandoned his claims of "Greater Syria"--including Jordan--invaded in the north.
Israel mobilized its forces and threatened to intervene in the war--against the Palestinian-Syrian coalition. The ultimatum worked. The Syrians withdrew and the PLO was expelled to Lebanon. Hussein again survived.
But the PLO and, more significantly, Abu Nidal, the renegade Palestinian terrorist acting as the tool of Syrian intelligence, began a campaign of terror against Jordanian leaders. They made several assassination attempts against the king.
Hussein was mindful of his debt to Israel. He did not participate in the 1973 Yom Kippur War--and so had no chance to secure parts of the West Bank. Israel succumbed to Egyptian and Syrian military pressures and began withdrawing from occupied Sinai and the Golan Heights.
Isolated from the peace process in the 1970s and '80s, Hussein came under increasing pressure from Israel. The right-wing governments of Menachem Begin, Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Shamir began a systematic campaign, declaring "Jordan is Palestine." During this time, secret meetings with Israeli leaders were drastically reduced. Hussein's advisers feared this Israeli propaganda would turn into belligerent acts--conspiring with the PLO to overthrow the regime. Seeking to maintain his politics of equilibrium, Hussein reconciled with Assad.
So why now? Why did Hussein, who always showed great personal and diplomatic caution, make this move on his own? There are several domestic, regional and international explanations. Counting on his loyal army and security apparatus, his grip on power is strong. The challenge of the Muslim opposition--which won a surprising 30% in the last parliamentary elections--is shrinking.
As Israel and Arafat's PLO continue to implement their agreements involving Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the question of Jordanian sovereignty over these lands no longer poisons the Middle East atmosphere. In addition, the return of a Labor-led government in Israel has made the country again sympathetic to Jordanian interests.
A few problems remain between the two countries--mainly the sharing of water sources, especially the Jordan River and tributaries, and the disputed 150 miles of cultivated land in the desert. The king is especially encouraged by the possibility that Israel will allow him to restore his religious sovereignty over Jerusalem--hinted at in the Washington Declaration signed jointly by the king and the Israeli premier.
Hussein must also hope that going public about his encounters with the Israeli leadership will help gain favors from Washington--new military hardware and forgiveness of a billion-dollar debt. It might also promote his image as a solid friend of the United States--an image sullied by his flirtation with Iraq's Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War.
And finally, the king, who in the past acted as a back channel for secret exchange of messages between Damascus and Jerusalem, may also be a litmus test for Syria. Hussein is still coordinating his peace advances with Assad. The bold move by the Jordanian ruler may well be an indication that even the three-year negotiating impasse over the matter of Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Golan Heights is reaching an end. It seems Hussein is finally certain he can bear the burden of peace.*