IT IS HARDLY surprising that
King Hussein of Jordan has once again closed the door on negotiations with Israel. The explanation is simple: Hussein doesn't want what Israel might conceivably give him, and he knows that Israel won't give him what he really does want.
What Hussein wants first and foremost is to survive and preserve his kingdom. Both of those tasks have proven to be something of a full-time occupation for him. Beyond that, he might hope to regain Arab sovereignty over the eastern parts of Jerusalem, especially the Old City with its holy sites. But Hussein does not want Jerusalem so badly that he would risk his life and kingdom to regain it.
Israel would like a peace treaty with Jordan, a formal gesture that would have enormous psychological as well as security implications. What is the best bottom-line deal that the Israelis could offer Hussein in negotiations? Israel might be able to return the populous areas of the West Bank to Jordanian control, leaving the area along the Jordan River and the high ground above in Israeli hands.
It is inconceivable that any Israeli government could or would relinquish control over any part of Jerusalem, which is the focal point of Jewish history and religion.
The Israelis and Hussein, of course, are not the only parties to the potential negotiations. The Palestinians also would want a seat at the table. The Palestinians have made it abundantly clear that they want a state of their own.
Israel's maximum possible position probably falls short of the Palestinians' minimum demand. But never mind. Hussein's own interests depend upon his doing nothing that will disturb the tenuous balance of the status quo. Taking back some portion of the West Bank into his kingdom would be a mortal threat to his interests.
It is a grand delusion to suppose that pursuing peace negotiations with Israel is in Hussein's self interest. Westerners who are constantly trying to push Hussein to the negotiating table have either forgotten, or don't know, that the Hashemite dynasty is little more than 60 years old. Hussein's origins are noble: He is said to be a direct descendant of Mohammed the Prophet. But, like a lot of people in the Mideast, his family came from somewhere else (Saudi Arabia), and recently.
Jordan -- Transjordan as it was originally called -- was awarded to Hussein's grandfather, Abdullah, by the British in 1921 as a diplomatic consolation prize, an inducement to divert Abdullah from taking up arms to help restore his brother, Feisal, to the Syrian throne from which he had been deposed by the French.
Typically the British asked neither the Jews nor the Palestinians if they wanted a kingdom created for a third party to solve an Anglo-French problem. If the British had asked, the answer would have been "no" -- from the Jews certainly and probably from the Palestinians as well.
From the Arab perspective, however, the question of the Hashemite kingdom remained secondary to their hostility to the creation of a Jewish state. When Palestine was partitioned by the United Nations in 1947, part of Palestine -- principally the West Bank -- was supposed to constitute a Palestinian state. But no one -- except the Palestinians -- really wanted a Palestinian state. Israel saw that such a state would be a constant threat to it, and Abdullah, sitting on his 27-year-old throne also feared that a neighboring Palestinian state would threaten the legitimacy of his artificial kingdom.
When Arab armies invaded Israel in 1948 to destroy the newly- created Jewish state, Abdullah's contribution to the effort was to seize the West Bank and put it firmly under his control, thereby averting the emergence of a Palestinian state.
Between 1948, when Abdullah first conquered the West Bank, and 1967, when his grandson Hussein lost to Israel in the Six Day War, Hussein and Abdullah exercised broad powers over its Palestinian inhabitants. Hussein kept a tight rein on them. Free speech, a free press, due process and self-government were all denied.
The post-1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank has not been a model of enlightenment either, but during the last 17 years profound changes have occurred there. Because of benevolence, squeamishness or stupidity -- depending upon one's point of view -- Israel has permitted an indigenous, Palestinian leadership to emerge, enabling residents of the West Bank to foster a nationalist movement that was firmly suppressed under Hussein's rule. A local press, not free but not exactly mute, either, has sprung up.
In 1977 elections for local officials were held for the first time under anyone's rule on the West Bank. Most of those officials have long since been deposed by the Israeli government, but nevertheless, the West Bank Palestinians have had a taste of self-government as well as the opportunity to express their separate Palestinian -- not Hashemite -- identity.
Hussein has had any number of brushes with death in the 33 years that he has occupied the throne. In 1970, he faced a full-scale civil war with Yasser Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Hussein has never forgotten that his grandfather was assassinated by a Palestinian nationalist.
Given this history, it isn't difficult to understand why Hussein isn't interested in returning the West Bank Palestinians to his kingdom.
Hussein already has peace with Israel, if not diplomatic relations. Even if the king did negotiate successfully for return of some portion of the West Bank, he has no hope of regaining any significant portion of Jerusalem. Could any Arab ruler negotiate a deal with Israel that left the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty and still hope to survive?
Hussein has survived the past three decades and more not by being a crusading idealist but by being a hard-headed realist with a passionate sense of his own self-interest. He has read his Machiavelli and well knows that to survive a prince must be like the lion and the fox -- "for the lion cannot defend himself from traps, and the fox cannot protect himself from wolves." That admonition surely tells him to curb his own desires to restore his kingdom to its former size.