Cover Story

The Passing of a Peacemaker

From his teenage years, King Hussein of Jordan lived a life of extreme risk. His political life was no different, except that he distinguished himself as a risk-taker in pursuit of peace in an unstable part of the world. His death leaves a tremendous vacuum. Will the extremists he kept at bay during his reign rise to new prominence in the Middle East balance of power, or will the new king find Hussein's courage?

Issue: "Passing of a peacemaker," Feb. 20, 1999

Defying the "thousand natural shocks" the flesh of a Middle East leader is heir to, Ibn Talal Hussein, King of Jordan, died Feb. 6 in Amman at the age of 63. In many ways it was an unremarkable finish for an Arab leader. Ever since his grandfather's assassination nearly 50 years ago, he was rumored to keep a gun in his glove compartment, his desk drawer, and under his pillow. In the end, after a long bout with cancer, he simply shuffled off this mortal coil.

King Hussein became Jordan's head of state before Dwight Eisenhower was elected president in 1952. He was 17. When his grandfather, King Abdullah, was assassinated in a Jerusalem mosque in 1951, the 15-year-old Hussein was at his side, protected from a stray bullet by a medal his grandfather had instructed him to wear. The monarch, often ridiculed for his small stature, was to survive at least a dozen assassination attempts. Syria attempted to shoot down his plane in 1958. A bomb was planted in the prime minister's office on the day of a scheduled visit in 1960. A servant tried to stab him, a cook tried to poison him, and he nearly fell victim to poison nose drops. At least three coup attempts failed as well.

Jordan, a near-total desert strip the size of South Carolina, was carved out in the1920s by a British colonial secretary named Winston Churchill. King Hussein was its third modern descendant of the Hashemite dynasty, tracing his lineage directly back to Mohammed. He forged a career out of the kinder, gentler blue blood of traditional Islamic teaching in an age of rising Arab extremism. Personal history tied him to the Arab cause but made him skeptical of its modern-day leaders. He took the throne just as Gamal Abdel Nasser took over Egypt in a military coup. He watched as other extremists took power in the Middle East: Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1968; Hafez al-Assad in Syria in 1970; and Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran in 1979. King Hussein held his small piece of ground without fossilizing, choosing the pragmatic if treacherous path.

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His reign could be calculated only by its surprises. Despite a bruising defeat by Israel that cost him the West Bank, he supported UN Resolution 242, which embodied Israel's right to exist. He championed the Palestinian cause, but fought a civil war against PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, forcing Mr. Arafat finally to flee Amman in the 1970s disguised as a woman. Mr. Arafat was eventually readmitted to Jordan, making it his headquarters, until King Hussein again cooled to the PLO leader's foolhardiness and expelled him from Jordan again in the late 1980s. He embraced the troublesome Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war and even defended Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1991, standing against the United States and most Middle East allies during the Gulf War. His final years saw formal peace with Israel. He signed an accord with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 and, one year later, eulogized the assassinated Mr. Rabin as his "brother, colleague, friend."

At home, King Hussein's policies won him a wide following and a moderate label. He encouraged Western-style, capitalist economic development, in spite of opposition from radical Islamic groups. He could crack down on press freedoms and limit parliamentary powers and still look libertarian by contrast to his neighbors. He allowed Christian mission agencies in Jordan to operate with few restrictions and in 1980 allowed Christian doctrine to be taught openly in private schools.

In a 1986 meeting with Don Wagner, director of the Chicago-based Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, King Hussein said, "Christians are part of the glue that holds our society together." He voiced concern that many Christians were emigrating and thought it would encourage moderate Muslims to follow.

As Mr. Wagner notes, "He had a huge balancing act to do because of the resurgence of extremist Muslim groups."

King Hussein was not unwilling to borrow religious tenets for political ends. In a driving 1997 letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the king attacked Israel's decision to enlarge Jewish settlements in the West Bank: "The saddest reality that has been dawning on me is that I do not find you by my side in working to fulfill God's will for the final reconciliation of all the descendants of the children of Abraham."

At the last, death revealed a monarch in the bosom of Islam. Family members disagreed over continuing life support. His American-born wife, Queen Noor, argued for disconnecting the respirator. Other family members, including appointed heir Prince Abdullah, wanted him to remain tethered to life support. The Muslim sharia law experts were called in.

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