We waited for more than five hours and he spoke for about one hour. In a meeting with a group of journalists invited by the United Nations, the Hashemite monarch admitted for the first time a different solution for the conflict with Israel. He also hoped to speak in an Arab parliament similar to the European one. (Read more…)
The almost inaudible voice of visionary Hussein bin Talal revealed a certain quiver when he said: “Some Arab leaders underestimate their own people… perhaps there is a generation gap that separates them. Perhaps that is why we, in Jordan, have to directly address the people.”
This “confession”, made during as interview in the royal palace of Amman, with several European journalists (I was one of them), invited by the United Nations for a mission to the Middle East, was both a kind of self-criticism and, at the same time, an apparent effort to awaken dormant consciences of the Arab leaders.
In an address centered on the democratization process in Jordan and the Israeli-Arab negotiations, the Hashemite King expressed great flexibility but without being too explicit.
“We are following the road of democracy and pluralism, but our reforms’ plan could not begin until after we have disengaged from the West Bank.” (By breaking off relations, in 1988, with the territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, Amman formally gave up its sovereignty ambitions in favor of the Palestinians.)
Seeking an explanation for the slowness of the democratic process, the King said: “We could not have held elections earlier; but we begin to set our house in order, and we are proud of what we have already done.”
Although Hussein singled out the Jordanian Parliament as an example for other Arab countries, he had to admit that some deputies and members of his Government objected to the peace process.
“Some people have difficulty in adjusting, but the overwhelming majority [of the Jordanians] are in favor [of the negotiations with Israel]. There remains the danger of extremists joining together on both sides.”
In order to prevent a strange alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the communist bloc from boycotting the  Madrid Conference, the King used his constitutional powers, in October, to postpone the opening of the Parliament for a few days.
Confident that the crisis between the parliamentarians and the Government led by Palestinian Taher al-Masri will be solved in time (the Prime Minister has kept in touch daily with the blocs that called for his dismissal), Hussein stated: “You will open the Parliament on the 1st of December.”
[Masri lead the Government from 19 June 1991 to 21 November 1991.]
The monarch humbly confessed that he felt heartened when he spoke recently in the European Parliament. And he expressed a wish: “I hope to be able, one day, to speak in an Arab Parliament, with a similar structure.”
Proud of the plans set to establish democracy in Jordan (“We are going to have free elections!”, he promised), the King felt confident, on the other hand, that peace in the region would be the greatest victory of his entire reign. [He signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.]
“Some people stick to their own limited views… and there are henceforth dangers in the way of the peace process, although also a great hope”, underlined Hussein.
In what concerns an eventual Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, he clarified: “The people will be able to choose freely, and we are going to move ahead to a stage where that will be possible.”
At a previous meeting, Adel Irsheid, director of the Palestinian Affairs Department of the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, expressed his belief that one of the results of the peace negotiations would certainly be a confederation, not yet fully formed.
In 1991, the PLO and Jordan – where the around 60% of the population is from Palestinian origin – signed a political agreement stipulating confederation links between both parts in the occupied territories.
A similar agreement, signed in 1989, by Hussein and Yasser Arafat, was never applied due to the pressure exerted by some “radical” factions on the PLO leader. Hereafter it was the “pragmatics” that forced him to move ahead instead of retreating.
When I asked Irsheid about whether Israel could be included in a future Jordanian-Palestinian confederation, he replied with a wicked smile: “It will no happen; it is impossible!”
Kink Hussein did no completely close the door: “We have seriously spoken about a Jordanian-Palestinian confederation; beyond that, I do not know. It is too soon to discuss this matter [inclusion of Israel]. The people may have very different points of view.”
The Palestinian refugees right of return to their homeland or to be compensated in accordance with the provisions of United Nations resolutions must be respected, according to Hussein and Irsheid.
More definitely than the King, Irsheid, being a Palestinian, is convinced that the majority of those who are living in refugee camps want to go back. And Jordan is going to advise them on this problem. However, he guaranteed that no one would be forced. Those who choose to live in Jordan will retain the kingdom’s nationality.
In order to avoid a repetition of tragedies like the massive exodus of 300,000 Palestinians from the Persian Gulf [expelled after the PLO supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invasion of Kuwait] to Jordan, King Hussein raised an intriguing question
“The Israelis may have dual nationality, both Israeli and American, for example”, he said. “Perhaps, in the future, people (but who?) may have more than one nationality. It would be a way of creating more stability and security, without this threat of losing everything at once.”
Expressing himself in strong terms, Hussein reaffirmed that the United Nations resolution 242 is still the basis of the negotiations; he insisted that, for the Arabs, East Jerusalem is occupied territory, albeit recognising that it is a different problem to be solved (Palestinians and Israelis contend that the city is their capital).
Hussein also spoke about the need to settle the region’s water crisis – “a giant challenge” – which may lead to the next war. Afterwards, he explained that Israel’s security is something to be discussed, because it cannot be mapped on the land.
With a mixture of confidence and pessimism, Hussein warned that the peace process is going to be a long one: “Failure or retreat will be a tragedy for the whole world.”
Noor: The shining light of Hussein
In her grey outfit, with silk blouse, high-heeled shoes a black headband holding her long dazzling hair, the Queen of Jordan is a striking lady. She receives their guests at the King’s side, but close behind. She holds out her hand firmly and whispers: “Welcome.”
In the room, she switches on and turns off the lights, gives orders to the servants, receives messages – everything with the utmost elegance and discretion. When the King is coming to end his statements, she gives him emphasis by adding some words.
[Noor, who was born, in 1951, as Lisa Najeeb Halaby (she was renamed on her conversion to Islam), is the fourth wife (now widow) of Hussein. They married in Amman on 15 June 1978.]
This “Arabian Queen” Noor, daughter of an American (father) and a Syrian-Lebanese mother, appears to the visitors as a very self-assured woman, perhaps because she is the wife of a genuine survivor of the volatile Middle East.
Hussein came to the throne in 1952, because his father was unable to govern, due to a mental illness. At 17-years-old, he became the youngest head of State. He survived all the “storms” in the desert – attempts to assassinate him, wars and revolutions – and managed to be one of the statesmen longest in power.
As in children’s tales, Noor and Hussein also live in a beautiful palace. The road leading to this royal house is bordered by cypresses, pines and palms – in order to reach it, visitors must pass through three barriers controller by soldiers with green and red berets.
There are no carriages or coaches at the entrance, only Mercedes and Jaguars. And there are lots, lots of guards. Neither pages nor chambermaids enter into this story; only secretaries, secret agents and bodyguards.
From a small cabinet with antique objects and some books on politics and literatures, we are accompanied up to the royal couple. It is a solemn moment, for which we waited for about six hours.
The meeting room is majestic. A huge piece of furniture carved in arabesques, inlaid with marble and tile, filled one of the walls from top to bottom. Water-colored pictures of the desert and Bedouins were an authentic tribute to the Hashemite monarchy’s roots.
The oil painting of Abudllah I, hung in a corner, was in perfect keeping with the issue under discussion – the Israeli-Arab peace process.
Hussein’s grandfather was murdered by a Palestinian, in June 1951, accused of having “sold his soul” to the British Mandate authorities, allegedly in order to establish a Jewish State in Palestine.
This article, now revised, was originally published in the Portuguese newspaper PÚBLICO (November 7, 1991) and in a UN special edition called “Peace in the News”