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Hussein, gentle champion of peace, succumbs to cancer

NEW YORK, Feb. 7 (JTA) — The most-fitting summation of King Hussein bin Talal”s nearly five decades as Jordan”s ruler may well come from the title of his own 1962 autobiography: “Uneasy Lies the Head.” His reign would certainly have been less uneasy had he possessed more cards to play in the region”s shifting sands of expedient military alliances and often- deadly power politics. But his was a desert kingdom with few natural resources and little real regional power. Jordan, created as a buffer state by England and France after World War II, was perpetually buffeted by its more powerful neighbors. Hussein repeatedly had to protect his nation”s sovereignty from the onslaughts of Syria, Iraq and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The king was, moreover, something of an outsider in his own country: The royal Hashemite family from which he was descended had its roots in the far southern edge of the Arabian peninsula. On more than one occasion, his loyal Bedouin troops saved his throne. Of necessity, Hussein walked a political tightrope throughout the more than 46 years he occupied the Hashemite throne. At his death at 63, he was the region”s longest-serving ruler — eight U.S. presidents and 10 British prime ministers came and went from the time he ascended to power in 1952. He was, in short, a political survivor. And he used his survival skills to become, as he will perhaps best be remembered, a champion of peace. Educated at the Sandhurst military academy in Britain, he was more liberal than any other Arab ruler — particularly in his attitude toward Israel. Hussein may well have made peace with the Jewish state a decade or two earlier than he actually did in October 1994 — had it not been for the staunch opposition to such a move from the rest of the Arab world and from the Palestinian population that made up the majority of Hussein”s kingdom. With an eye toward achieving a peace with Israel that would also serve Palestinian needs, he held a series of secret meetings with Israeli officials over the years, some of which have been made public only recently: with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in 1972, with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in 1987 and with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that same year. The meetings were of necessity held in secret. In 1951, when he was 15, Hussein witnessed the assassination of his grandfather, King Abdullah, by a Palestinian gunman angry at the king”s perceived willingness to carve up Palestinian lands with Israel. Had his meetings with the Israelis become widely known, Hussein was certain he would suffer a similar fate. Perhaps the most famous of the “secret” meetings was Hussein”s encounter with Prime Minister Golda Meir on the eve of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Days before that meeting, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Syrian President Hafez Assad had tried to convince the Jordanian monarch that Israel was about to attack them. They asked him to allow Syrian troops to move through northern Jordan to head off the Israeli assault. Six years earlier, in the 1967 Six-Day War, Hussein had learned the cost of allying himself with Egypt and Syria. As a result of that war, he lost eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank — “I had never received a more crushing blow than that,” Hussein said in a recent interview. In 1973, he was not about to make the same mistake again. Far from reaching any agreement with Sadat and Assad, Hussein flew off alone to meet Meir. He warned the prime minister that Egypt and Syria were planning a surprise attack on Israel. But Meir, with no intelligence reports to back up Hussein”s assessment, did not heed the warning. The king”s meeting with her was in no small part the repayment of a debt to the Jewish state dating back to September 1970, when he was attempting to remove the PLO from Jordanian soil. In the wake of the 1967 war, the PLO had entrenched itself in Jordan, from where it launched repeated raids on Israel. By 1970, PLO leader Yasser Arafat and other factional heads were attempting to overthrow the king, who viewed their operations against Israel as a threat to Jordan. After Hussein came under machine-gun fire on the streets of Amman — and after the PLO staged the destruction of several hijacked airplanes at the capital”s airport — the king had enough and declared war on the PLO. Fighting erupted in and around Amman in what later became known as Black September. The wider Arab world, which had long distrusted Hussein as a Western puppet, sided with the PLO. Syria sent tanks into Jordan — and the king was powerless to stop their steady advance. After seeking American intervention — he could not possibly have sought Israeli help directly — on Sept. 16, four Israeli phantom jets flew low over the Syrian tanks. Without a shot being fired, the tanks got the message, turned north and headed back for Damascus. For years on end, Hussein had to seek peace with Israel from the shadows. His pro-Western proclivities had made him suspect among pan-Arabists since the 1950s, when he was the target of a succession of assassination and coup attempts. He had to wait — until after Egypt, then the Palestinians, signed peace treaties with the Jewish state. On Sept. 14, 1993, Hussein finally had his chance: Only one day after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Arafat shared their historic handshake on the White House lawn, Israel and Jordan signed a “Common Agenda” in Washington. That document served as a blueprint for the peace treaty the two nations signed a year later, on Oct. 26, 1994. It was then, in a signing ceremony with Rabin and President Clinton on the Israeli-Jordanian border, that Hussein could state, for all the world to hear, what he had previously pursued behind the scenes. “This great valley in which we stand will become the valley of peace,” he said. “This is peace with dignity. This is peace with commitment. This is our gift to our peoples and the generations to come.” In the ensuing years before he succumbed to cancer, Hussein lived up to those words, infusing warmth and humanity into his country”s peace with Israel. When Rabin”s funeral was held on Nov. 6, 1995, Hussein moved the audience with his eulogy for the man he described as a “brother, a colleague and a friend.” “We belong to the camp of peace,” he said. “We believe that our one God wishes us to live in peace, and we wish his peace upon us. For these are his teachings to all the followers of the three great monotheistic religions, the children of Abraham.” His dedication to peace became evident to all Israelis in March 1997, when Hussein paid condolence calls to the families of Israeli schoolchildren who were killed by a deranged Jordanian soldier while they were making a field trip to a site on the Israeli-Jordanian border. And if Hussein won the hearts of Israelis at that time, he won over much of the rest of the world when, clearly showing the effects of chemotherapy, he attended the White House signing of the Wye agreement last October. In what proved his last appearance at a diplomatic event, he spoke of putting aside “our petty differences” and working for a better future, “for all the children of Abraham.” Only days before, he had gotten up from his sick bed to help Israel and the Palestinian Authority reach the accord. For months, he had been undergoing treatment for lymphatic cancer. On Sunday, that illness succeeded in accomplishing what assassins” bullets and plotting military leaders had failed to do. Several years ago, when Hussein had overcome prostate cancer, a television interviewer asked him whether he was afraid of death. “Life is a journey,” he replied with regal simplicity. “It has a beginning and an end. Why should I be afraid?””