Uneasy Lies the Head

Article excerpt

Byline: Karen Elliott House

King Abdullah of Jordan has the good--or perhaps bad--fortune to have his prosaic memoirs published just as the Middle East is engulfed in momentous changes that began in Tunis a month ago, spread to Cairo, and now reverberate in other capitals, including, in a still-small way, his own.

The Hashemite dynasty, of which Abdullah is the latest leader in a line stretching back to the Prophet Muhammad, once played leading roles in the Mideast drama, though these days King Abdullah has been reduced to a modest supporting actor. As he recounts at the opening of his book, Our Last Best Chance, his great-great-grandfather, Sherif Hussein of Mecca, launched the Arab revolt of 1916 with dreams of ruling a vast nation stretching from Arabia across the whole Middle East. Instead, Sherif Hussein lost Arabia to the fiercer al-Saud family while the British and French carved up the rest of the Middle East between them, giving the consolation prize of Transjordan to one of Sherif's sons, Abdullah. That Abdullah, in turn, was assassinated in Jerusalem by an Arab militant.

This left the little kingdom to be ruled by Abdullah's grandson, the diminutive, teenage Hussein, often referred to as the "Little King." While small of stature, Hussein managed to play an outsize role in events that followed his coronation in 1952. During the course of a 47-year reign he fought two wars with Israel and multiple battles with Palestinians who sought to unseat him; made numerous secret trips to Israel, culminating in a peace agreement in 1994; and was a loyal ally to successive American administrations from Eisenhower to Clinton seeking ever-elusive stability in the Middle East.

I was privileged to know King Hussein well and to accompany him during one of his most intensive peace efforts--working with the Reagan administration to seek a solution to the Palestinian issue. That 1983 effort, like so many others, foundered on the lack of seriousness of Yasir Arafat, who insisted on speaking for the Palestinians and refused to support Hussein's efforts. The king's courage and persistence over nearly five decades in the face of mind-boggling intransigence and shortsightedness by both Arabs and Israelis--and his determination to keep pushing for peace when everyone he trusted, from U.S. presidents to Israeli and Arab leaders, disappointed him repeatedly--made Hussein an endearing leader to his people. Regardless of poor treatment by Arab allies and his former Israeli adversary, he worked until the final days of his life to promote a p eaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, rising from his bed in the Mayo Clinic, emaciated and weak from cancer, to go to the Wye plantation near Washington to try to help President Clinton nudge Arafat and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Barak to the closest the two sides ever came before or since to an agreement. But, again, it was not to be. Not long after, he succumbed to lymphoma.

King Abdullah so far has not faced any tests such as those his father had to confront. There are currently some public protests in Amman, but they are still small and aimed more at improving government efficiency than at deposing the monarchy. It appears that Abdullah can still count on the support of at least the half of his population composed of Bedouin tribes whose loyalty to the Hashemite monarchy was cemented by his father and who still dominate the Army. That said, Abdullah doubtless will have to demonstrate more skills at leadership than he has been called upon to display in his first decade on the throne. …