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Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Avi Shlaim

Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peace by Avi Shlaim

(London, Penguin Books, 2008), 736 pages, ISBN: 978-0-141-01728-0

King Hussein Bin Talal of Jordan was a strong and exemplary statesman. Yet, he ruled over a weak and vulnerable state: a fragile country surrounded by stronger and hostile powers in the immediate and far neighbourhood of the Middle East and financially dependent on foreign help. His domestic support was further handicapped by the nationalist ambitions and divided loyalties of Jordan\'s Palestinian population. His journey as a ruler (beginning 1952) of an infant Transjordan (created by Britain, or rather Winston Churchill’s stroke of a pen on a sunny Sunday afternoon of March, 1921, p.13) started against severe odds. In 1951, his grandfather King Abdullah was assassinated by a Palestinian while he went to Jerusalem to offer his Friday prayers in Al-Aqsa mosque. Hussein was fifteen years old; but the next year he was declared the king of his country because his father couldn’t carry the task due to his mental instability.

The Israeli historian Avi Shlaim finds much to admire in his subject\'s character and statecraft. Hussein was an “autocrat,” the author allows, but a “benign” one, whose charisma, determination and farsightedness were strengths that he cultivated and not inherited. Much of the book is devoted to a detailed chronicling of the Middle East peace process, centering on Hussein\'s decades-long negotiations, both covert and overt, with Israel.

King Hussein was admired the most by his friends and foes for his life-long endeavours for peace. He hated war. He was one the first Arab leaders who not only realised that peace with Israel is only possible through diplomacy and negotiations and not war but also proved it in spite of all his limitations. He didn’t intend to attack Israel –except for the 1967 war in which he was dragged into by Egypt and Syria. Hussein later regretted the blunder. Thus, the book is a detailed account of his minor and major negotiations with the Israelis, the great powers and also with his contemporary Arab leaders.

Shlaim’s advantage as an historian is shown in the full details of the tasks that he has highlighted. The archival materials in Israel, Britain and America have made this piece of work highly significant for all who want to fathom as to what led to where in the Israel-Arab relations after the 1948 war. The political biography of King Hussein, therefore, has more importance than a description of the life of a political leader.

For Shlaim King Hussein had the overarching aim of ensuring the survival of the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan. Everything else flowed from it. His second most important concern was resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. In his first effort, Hussein succeeded remarkably and protected the state of Jordan from all external and internal threats. There were direct attacks on his life and attempts to topple the Hashemite monarchy by many. In the 1950s and 1960s a few Arab states like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Iraq did not approve of an independent Jordanian state ruled by the Hashemite monarchy. Later, when the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) came into the picture, it sought to remove King Hussein, accusing him of conspiring with the Israelis and Americans. For their parts, Israeli leaders such as Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon wanted to convert Jordan into a Palestinian state after the 1967 war. They sought to solve the problem of the Palestinians by moving them from the West into the East Bank. On more than occasion they wished for the collapse of Hashemite monarchy.

To defeat all these wishful thinking, King Hussein used his diplomatic skills in mobilising the support of great powers to ensure the survival and stability of his rule. Britain and America did provide arms and consistent aid whenever he was in critical situations. Since 1963, his constant dialogue with the Israeli leadership was one of his survival strategies. Without any disagreement, he claimed success on this front. He carried on for more than four decades as a monarch till his death due to cancer in 1999.

The effectiveness of his contribution to resolve the conflict for the Palestinians is debatable. According to Shlaim, his attempts with regard to the fighting for the peace for the Palestinians and larger Arab world were impeded mainly because neither Israelis nor other Arab states were sincere in making peace. Israel preferred the status quo after the 1948 war and disliked making any concessions to build peace with other Arab states whom it considered too antagonistic. This thesis has been elaborately dealt with by Shlaim in his earlier book, The Iron Wall.  According to this thesis, since 1948, Israel has been too ready to use military force and remarkably reluctant to engage in meaningful diplomacy to resolve its dispute with the Arabs.

King Hussein met equal degree of noncooperation from his fellow Arab leaders who at times accused him of being a traitor, even when his attempts to make peace were genuine. Jordan was given the offer of signing bilateral peace treaty with Israel on more than one occasion. But he did not want to do something that Sadat did in 1977, thus leaving behind the Palestinians. He demanded that any peace agreement with Israel would have to address the issue of the Palestinians. He tried to make accord with the PLO and supported the Madrid peace process in 1991. Unfortunately, a couple of years later the PLO and Israel signed the Oslo peace accord by keeping King Hussein in dark. King Hussein didn’t oppose this accord but learnt that he had to take care of the state of affairs with Israel bilaterally. So, he went ahead on his own and signed the bilateral peace treaty with Israel in 1994: the peace he had been trying to achieve since the Arab defeat of the 1967 war.

The bulk of the book deals with Hussein’s foreign policy and the way he managed his political legitimacy both inside and beyond the Arab world. It is filled with the details of his foreign visits and meticulous narratives of his relations with other foreign leaders like American presidents, all major political leaders and policy makers of Israel and other powerful leaders of the Arab world. What is not detailed out is the internal state of affairs of Jordan. The major issues of economy, governance and law and order, agriculture, planning and development and institution building were on the margins. Shlaim critically evaluates Hussein’s role in the internal affairs of his state and he doesn’t admire his rule for the welfare of the Jordanians as he does for his foreign policy. During Hussein’s rule authoritarianism, corruption and nepotism were on rise. His over-involvement with foreign affairs affected badly the issues at home. The economy was the worst affected part of Jordanian state. At the end of Hussein’s reign Jordan was still crucially dependent on external sources for funding. The never ending struggle for solvency is one of the legacies that he bequeathed to his son and successor King Abdullah II in 1999 (p.610).

One of the significant contributions of Shlaim’s book is that it provides, for the first time, an historical account of the Middle East peace process from the perspective of an Arab leader. So far Israeli and American points of view have dominated the narrative. The Arabs have been held responsible for peace deadlock and hostile conditions in the region. The blame for perpetual conflict was thrown at them. Shlaim, who belongs to the school of the revisionist historical writing of the 1948 war, highlights the missing points of the debate with the help of primary sources. His work in this book primarily focuses upon the significance of Hussein’s contribution to four decades to build peace, thus unearthing the shortcomings and expansionist policies of Israel. Another significant merit of the book is the listing of secret Jordanian secret meetings with Israeli officials.

Thus, the book must be commended for maintaining historical consistency, its archival credentials as well as its readability. Avi Shlaim has scripted a historical narrative in mesmerising style of prose – dexterity only a few historians possess.

Khinvraj Jangid is a Doctoral candidate at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy