King Hussein of Jordan: On A Knife Edge is the second of a two-part series telling the story of Jordan’s King from 1952 to his death in 1999.
The second half of King Hussein’s career, his relationship with Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab world and the West.
This two-part series is the story of Jordan’s king from 1952 to 1999, a major political figure in the cauldron of the Middle East and one whose life and career were never far from a crisis, at home and abroad. Hussein was still only fifteen when his grandfather, King Abdullah I, was shot dead by a Palestinian gunman in July 1951 with the boy by his side at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Hussein’s father, Talal, became king but was forced to abdicate for health reasons after only a year in power, in August 1952; and the sixteen-year-old Crown Prince acceded to the throne, under a Regency Council until he came of age. He then faced a series of political crises, domestically and in his dealings with Israel. As King of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, he took over the country at a time of huge uncertainty. He inherited the Anglo-Jordanian treaty with the British from his grandfather – but also had to deal with the fall-out from the 1948 war and foundation of Israel when the West Bank and East Jerusalem were annexed to Jordan, along with their Palestinian populations. Hussein’s supporters regarded him as the father of modern Jordan, the man who guided his country through dangerous times and kept the Hashemite dynasty in power at a time when the Egyptian, Iraqi and Libyan monarchies had all fallen. But Jordanian opposition parties, particularly the Communists, were against the monarchy. The communist party won a parliamentary majority in 1956 but a year later Hussein dismissed the Prime Minister, ended multi-party rule and imprisoned or exiled his opponents. During his 46-year reign, the country’s industry and infrastructure certainly grew and were modernised – and living standards and literacy among ordinary Jordanians steadily improved.
But internationally he polarises opinion. In parts of the Arab world, he’s accused of selling out to the British, Americans and Israeli Zionists. His highest profile critic was arguably Egypt’s nationalist President Nasser who had himself overthrown King Faroukh. The two were often at loggerheads. Jordan joined Egypt and Syria in the Six Day War with Israel in 1967 in which Hussein lost the whole of the West Bank and saw his military decimated. He then refused to join Syria and Egypt in the retaliatory October War in 1973, even tipping off Golda Meir that an Arab attack was imminent. Hussein’s relationship with the Palestinians was also difficult. After the 1967 loss of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, they never felt he was able to protect them; and in 1970 he expelled the PLO from Jordan.
Hussein is thought to have conducted secret talks with Israel over a thirty year period, resulting in the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace in 1994; and his relationship with Yitzhak Rabin was so close, he spoke at Rabin’s funeral. His relationship with the West was also extremely close – and in 1977 the Washington Post alleged he had such strong ties with the CIA that even received a monthly salary from the agency.
In February 1999, Hussein lost his seven-year battle against cancer. He was a colourful and controversial personality, a trained and daring pilot, with an eventful personal life. He had four marriages, the latter to the American-born Lisa Hallaby, Queen Noor, his wife for 21 years until his death. His critics described him as an artful opportunist, cynically shifting alliances with the sole aim of staying in power. An Israeli intelligence report once described him as a man trapped on a bridge burning at both ends, spanning a crocodile-infested river. He was certainly an arch politician who navigated the minefield of the Middle East all his political life but never lost faith in the peace process. In his last major TV interview he said he believed that peace would eventually be reached in the Arab-Israeli conflict although, of course, almost two decades later, that peace is still proving as elusive as ever.
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