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Lion of Jordan: The Life of King Hussein in War and Peaceby Avi Shlaim
Synopses & Reviews
During his long reign (1953-1999), King Hussein of Jordan was one of the most dominant figures in Middle Eastern politics and a consistent proponent of peace with Israel. This is the first major account of his life, written with access to his official documents and with the cooperation (but not approval) of his family and staff, and also extensive interviews with international policy makers.
For more than forty years, Hussein walked a tightrope between the Palestinians and Arab radicals on the one hand and Israel on the other. Avi Shlaim reveals that, for the sake of dynastic and national survival, Hussein initiated a secret dialogue with Israel in 1963 that encompassed more than one thousand hours with Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, and countless others. Shlaim reconstructs this dialogue across battle lines from previously untapped Israeli records and the firsthand accounts of key participants, and makes clear that it was Israeli intransigence that was largely responsible for the failure to achieve a peaceful settlement between 1967 and 1994.
At Husseins memorial service at St. Pauls Cathedral, the Prince of Wales hailed him as “a man amongst men, a king amongst kings.” Lion of Jordan illuminates the triumphs and disappointments, the qualities and character of this extraordinary soldier and statesman, and significantly rewrites the history of the Middle East over the past fifty years.
"Ruler of a weak country surrounded by stronger powers in the cutthroat environs of the Middle East, financially dependent on foreign sponsors, precariously riding herd on the nationalist ambitions of Jordan's Palestinian majority, Hussein eked out a long reign (1953 — 1999) through very unleonine policies of caution and restraint. Historian Shlaim (War and Peace in the Middle East) finds much to admire in his subject's character and statecraft. Hussein was an 'autocrat,' the author allows, but a 'benign' one, whose resolute crackdown on Palestinian extremists in the 1970 civil war was necessary to save Jordan from chaos. Much of the book is taken up with a detailed chronicle of the Middle East peace process, centering on Hussein's decadeslong negotiations, both secret and open, with Israel; in Shlaim's telling, Israel comes off badly, and Hussein emerges as the embodiment of Arab moderation, his sincere initiatives stymied by the alleged intransigence and perfidy of Israeli leaders who 'preferred land to peace.' Shlaim's stinging critique of Israel might stir controversy, but his comprehensive, nuanced account of Hussein's life illuminates the tragic complexities of Middle East politics. Photos. (Sept. 9)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
As the United States is undergoing the most significant change of administrations in decades, two new biographies of the late King Hussein of Jordan examine the life of a fascinating monarch and his style of leadership. For 46 years, the "plucky little king" navigated his small, resource-starved country through the treacherous shoals of Arab politics, great-power rivalries, and allies who lacked his... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) idealism and pragmatism. Up to his death in 1999, he was a leader of remarkable vision, commitment and humanity. Hussein's kingdom began as a piece of green hills and arid desert running from west of the Jordan River east into southern Syria and the wastelands of Saudi Arabia. Put together by the British Colonial Office in 1921, the original Transjordan was an afterthought in the redistribution of the Ottoman Empire's Arab territories. Britain placed Abdullah, the son of the Sharif of Mecca (who had revolted against the Ottomans in 1916), on the throne it had created. Abdullah supplied the spiritual underpinnings of his grandson Hussein's moral and ideological outlook. Born in 1935, Hussein was only 15 when he saw his beloved grandfather Abdullah fall to an assassin's bullet. The young Hussein grew up fast as the result of his father's mental illness, which ruled him out as Abdullah's successor. In May 1953, almost six months before his 18th birthday, Hussein became king. At the age of 20, he steered Jordan clear of the 1956 Suez War between Egypt and an alliance of Britain, France and Israel. He ended Britain's quasi-colonial status in his kingdom at the age of 21. He was only 32 in 1967 when he made the disastrous mistake of joining Gamal Abdel Nasser in the war against Israel that deprived him of the part of his kingdom on the West Bank that included Jerusalem. He was 34 when he ordered his army to attack the Palestine Liberation Organization, which had created a state within a state inside Jordan from which it ran raids into Israel and undermined Hussein's rule over his kingdom. At the age of 38, he held the most proficient military in the Arab world out of the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel. When he was 44, younger than Barack Obama is today, Hussein resisted intense pressure from the United States to join the 1979 Camp David peace process. In 1990 he crossed the United States again by remaining outside the coalition that expelled Saddam Hussein's Iraq from Kuwait. King Hussein was not yet 60 when he stepped out of the Arab fold to sign a peace treaty with Israel. At the age of 63, he died. If these actions seem inconsistent, one of Hussein's strengths was the ability to bob and weave like a boxer in the interest of his country's survival. According to Nigel Ashton in his "political life" of the king, "the central reality of Arab politics throughout Hussein's reign was one of struggle; not the struggle with Israel as one might expect, but a struggle amongst Arab regimes for the prize of leadership." In his internal and external endeavors, Hussein could call upon little but his own strength. For anyone who met him, his charisma was undeniable. He was regal, he was courageous, he exhibited exquisite manners. Above all, he approached others with great respect for their strengths, foibles and insecurities. The great tragedy of his rule was that those with whom he sought peace failed to give him the support he needed to achieve his dream of accommodation among the "children of Abraham": Jews, Christians and Muslims. In "Lion of Jordan," Avi Shlaim brilliantly lays out Hussein's search for tranquillity for his country and his neighbors, and the obstacles his negotiating partners put in his way. Like his grandfather Abdullah, he was the king of realism, as well as the patriarch of Arab nationalism. "The issue for him," writes Shlaim, "was how to resolve the Arab-Israeli dispute peacefully, how to end the conflict, how to reach an accommodation with the State of Israel and to close this war-filled chapter in the history of the region." Shlaim, an Israeli, goes on to cite his own country's intransigence as largely responsible for the failure to achieve that peaceful settlement that Hussein strived for. The United States, Hussein's essential ally for much of his reign, proved to be unsteady, giving and retracting support according to an American agenda that lacked insight into the realities of the Arab world. Death spared Hussein from having to deal with the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His son, Abdullah II, lives with the consequences. Arab nationalism, which Hussein had hoped to make his patrimony, has crumbled in the seismic shift in the Arab Middle East triggered by the rise of the Shia in Iraq. And Abdullah II now struggles to defend Hussein's dynasty inside Jordan's truncated borders. The Palestinian challenge remains. The economic challenges remain. Israel as a nation continues to refuse to embrace the concept of a two-state solution of the Palestinian issue. The United States remains bound to the policies of its Israeli ally while foundering in a region in turmoil. And yet Jordan remains a model of moderation in a region fractured by Arab and Jewish militancy and Sunni-Shia rivalry. Hussein is gone, but the regime he put in place remains. The question is for how long. It is a question in which the next leader of the United States holds a stake. Reviewed by Sandra Mackey, who is the author of 'Mirror of the Arab World: Lebanon in Conflict', Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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About the Author
Avi Shlaim was born in Baghdad in 1945, grew up in Israel, and studied at Cambridge University and the London School of Economics. He is a Fellow of St. Anthony's College and a professor of international relations at the University of Oxford. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2006. His books include Collusion Across the Jordan: King Abdullah, the Zionist Movement, and the Partition of Palestine (winner of the Political Studies Associations 1988 WJM Mackenzie Prize); The Politics of Partition; War and Peace in the Middle East: A Concise History; and The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. He lives in Oxford.
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