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Jewish World Review Feb. 12, 1999/26 Shevat, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) DESPITE THE LONG DEATH VIGIL and echoing ululations, it is hard to believe even now that His Majesty Hussein ibn Talal, King of Jordan, Sharif of Mecca, and the wiliest survivor in the snake pit that is the Middle East, couldn't have overcome one more threat, embraced one more enemy, executed one more about-face, put down one more armed insurrection or palace plot, negotiated one more secret agreement or somehow someway effected an entente, detente or at least a gentleman's agreement with the Angel of Death.

Looking back, it's a continual wonder how Hussein the Hashemite lasted as long as he did -- 43 years on the throne of a nation arbitrarily drawn on the map by Winston Churchill one afternoon in order to give the Arab Legion a home. And only incidentally to fill the gap left between Palestine and Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in the wake of the Ottoman Empire.

Well, that empty space had to be called something. Why not Trans-Jordan? Besides, the Hashemites needed a place to light after they'd been thrown out of the Hejaz by the Saudis. And so Jordan's colors, uniforms, and traditions were designed by the Foreign Office as quickly as its national boundaries. As if they'd been ordered from Harrod's. And a jolly good job it was, kefiyahs and braids and all. Never was a son of the Prophet outfitted in more smashing taste.

Who would have thought that this instant, imported line of royalty would have lasted so long? As a boy, Hussein would see his grandfather Abdullah mowed down on the steps of Jerusalem's grand mosque, the al-Aksa on the Temple Mount. And in the '50s, his royal cousin Feisal in Iraq would be dragged from his palace and killed. (That same Ba'athist uprising eventually led to Saddam Hussein's mad regime there. The British swiftly intervened to make sure nothing like that happened in Amman.)

How did Hussein survive war after war and even deadlier peace? Well, he was a sincere friend of the Bedouin and anybody else whose help he needed, and whose interests coincided with his own -- and for as long as they did. He was faithful in his fashion.

Hussein survived by always following, never leading. He was sure to be the second leader to make war or peace, never the first. That would have been leadership, and leadership in the Middle East, he soon learned, could prove fatal. See the lives of Anwar Sadat and Yitzhak Rabin, and especially how abruptly they ended. After all, the very word ``assassin'' was invented in the Middle East. And so Hussein resolved never to be first in war or peace, but only in the hearts of the Arab Legion and his faithful Bedu.

When war was popular, he would follow the Gamal Nassers and Saddam Husseins who preached it, and when peace was in the cards, he was ready to be dealt in. The sovereign known as PLK (for Plucky Little King) in Henry Luce's Time was really more of a weather vane. He survived so long because he had no higher aspiration than to survive.

When the mobs were gathering in the street, as in the Gulf War, he would join them in singing Saddam Hussein's praises. When peace was unavoidable, he would join in and accept the plaudits of the West. Even if that meant doing the right thing in his latter, much-feted years. His Majesty was nothing if not accommodating.

Only occasionally, as in 1967, did the PLK guess wrong. That's the year the hand that held the dagger plunged it into its neighbor's back. But rather than collapse, the Israelis had the poor taste to emerge victorious in the Six Day War. So instead of a triumphal entry into ancient Jerusalem, Hussein the Hashemite would see Jordan split and become Trans-Jordan once again.

Hussein would avenge himself -- on the Palestinians -- in 1970, the year of Black September, when he put down their revolt with a severity unusual even in the Middle East. When war came again, in 1973, he managed to both secretly warn the Israelis of the coming attack, though they were much too cocky to heed him, and then formally go to war against them. It was Hussein at his most Hussein-ish. If there had been another side in the Yom Kippur War, he would surely have found a way to join it, too. He made Machiavelli, who after all, lost his position, look like a bumbling amateur.

From time to time, Jordan's Hussein would be both for and against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, on the CIA's payroll and anti-American, and in general everybody's friend whom nobody could trust. George Bush found that out in the Gulf War and, naive American that he was, took it personally.

Year after year (1948-67) and so long as he controlled the West Bank, Hussein allowed Yasser Arafat's then-murderous PLO to terrorize Israeli towns and villages along the border. It was only when the PLO threatened to become a kingdom within his kingdom, and menaced his own interests, that he turned on it. But if Hussein was no pathfinder of peace like Sadat or Rabin, neither was he a war lover like Gamal Abdel Nasser or Saddam Hussein. He could have been much worse. And at times he was.

Even in his last, chemotherapied days, Hussein was still intriguing, playing games with his succession. Yes, it's a wonder he didn't manage to play a double game with Death, too. Instead, he's crossed a different kind of Jordan.

All the old Middle East hands might have assumed that Hussein would be succeeded by his brother Hassan -- the moderate, pragmatic caretaker he'd left in charge while he was on medical leave. Hassan, after all, had been Crown Prince for 34 loyal years before he suddenly wasn't. Once again, all the old Middle East hands have proven as reliable as all the old Middle East hands usually do.

Hussein spent his last few days switching the line of succession back to his eldest son Abdullah, and Jordan's future is in doubt again. So, perhaps, is Hassan's. Which is not good news for the West and anybody else who would like to see a little stability east of the Jordan.

Jordan, trans- or not, was always more of a buffer zone than a kingdom and, without Hussein, it may even become a vacuum. Speculation, another word for fear in these circumstances, must be mounting in various quarters at the prospect of a new, untested king assuming so pivotal a position on the treacherous Middle Eastern chessboard.

Young Abdullah, now Abdullah II, is largely unknown except for his love of racing cars. But the same could have been said of young Hussein four decades ago. Then, too, after the first Abdullah suddenly exited, the prudent course was to proclaim: The king is dead, long live the king! But never turn your back.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate